Jacob: The Tactician or the Coward?

Welcome back to those who were on the JJC Congregational Israel Trip. We look forward to hearing more about your trip, including a special presentation by Steve on a Shabbat morning.

One of the highlights as expressed to me by Richard was being at the Kotel on Friday evening and seeing 100 Israeli soldiers with M16s and Uzis davening. This image stuck with me: the prayer to G-d while at the same time the belief that one must protect him/herself at all costs. I thought of the Yom Kippur War when Israel was surprised by 5 Arab countries and how this can never happen again.

This leads into this week’s Torah portion. In anticipation of his militant brother Esau, the one who said “Let the mourning period for my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.”[1] Jacob prepares cattle, donkeys, sheep and male and female slaves in order to placate him. Instead of being “at peace,” Jacob’s messenger reports “Esau is coming to meet you, and there are 400 men with him.”[2] Jacob panics: in his anxiety he divides his family into two camps, thinking “If Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”[3]

In my Questions for the Week, I asked if Jacob’s move was one of a strategic military tactician or of a coward. One could argue that Jacob was wise, knowing that nothing could be taken for granted with his spur-of-the-moment brother. He put Rachel and Joseph last, his favorite wife and his favorite son.[4] As Ibn Ezra comments, he hoped they would escape for he loved them.[5] Like any good general he goes first, running up to Esau and then bowing before him. Rashi comments that Jacob went first because “if this evil man wants to fight, let him fight me first.”[6] It appears that Jacob was intentional and smart as he went out to meet his impulsive brother.

One could argue, however, that Jacob was a coward. He brought multiple gifts in an attempt to placate his brother. He behaved extremely obsequiously, bowing low to the ground 7 times.[7] He forced his wives, concubines and children to all bow low before Esau, as if to say ‘We will serve you as you wish.’ Jacob indicates that he brought the lavish gifts in order to curry favor with his brother and begs Esau to take them even after he refuses.[8] This manner of groveling and subservience to his brother does not show Jacob as a strong leader but rather a weakling coward.

This appears to be the turning point in the Jacob story: after his encounter with Esau it’s all downhill. His sons Shimon and Levi deviously murder the men of Shechem after Jacob cuts a deal with him. Jacob’s firstborn Revuen sleeps with his concubine Bilhah, a sign that he wants to take over for daddy. All of the brothers gang up against Jacob’s favorite son Joseph, offering Jacob false comfort as he deals with misery and wretchedness. I wonder if the brothers saw Jacob’s obsequiousness and thought ‘Daddy’s weak; it’s my turn to take over for him.’ Perhaps this is why Jacob describes his years as “few and hard”[9] to Pharaoh.

The point is that things are never as cut and dry as they appear prima facie. I always thought Jacob was a brilliant strategist but now I see him as more of an anxious coward. While we should not judge someone until we’ve been in his/her shoes and there is always the danger of the ‘Monday morning quarterback’, Jacob’s example does give us cause to pause. In the end we might not have an answer, or maybe we can see Jacob as both a brilliant general and a fearful coward. This, however, is what makes his story so compelling and why I hope each of us will continue to study it year after year.

[1] Genesis 27:41

[2] Genesis 32:7

[3] Genesis 32:9

[4] Genesis 33:2

[5] Ibn Ezra on Genesis 33:2 ד”ה ואת רחל ואת יוסף אחרונים

[6] Rashi on Genesis 33:3 ד”ה והוא עבר לפניהם

[7] Genesis 33:3

[8] Genesis 33:8

[9] Genesis 47:9

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Growing from One’s Failures

What is your salary? We do not ask this question as salary is considered to be private. Many people erroneously consider how much we make to be equal to how much we are worth as a person. However, others realize there is something more important than money. The reading The Crown of a Good Name that I do at the end of a shiva minyan reads “Wealth like health will pass away, but a good name can live on forever.”[1]

Discussions about wages and monetary worth are nothing new: they go back to this week’s Torah portion. As Lavan and Jacob parted, Lavan asked, “What are the wages due you?”[2] Jacob replied, “Pay me nothing!”[3] Why does Jacob not want to be paid for the 20 years he worked for Lavan? Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, said, “Nothing from all the sheep that you now have, since I have been serving you for your daughters.”[4]

Often we think money sells. We look for the jobs that pay the most money. We care about our salaries and benefits; after all maybe it will lead us to retire at a younger age. Jacob, however, couldn’t care less. What he realized is that there are some things that money can’t buy, and one of them is love. He worked 7 years expecting to marry Rachel yet was tricked by Lavan into marrying Leah. He had to work another 7 years for Rachel and then worked 6 years more for Lavan’s flocks.

One might interject and say, ‘Rabbi, look at what follows’; context is everything. Jacob said to Lavan that his wages would be determined by goats which are streaked, speckled or spotted and sheep which are dark-colored. Lavan agreed, and Jacob used mating rods to ensure that the stronger young goats and sheep that would be born would go to him. This appears to be another example of Jacob as trickster, using the mating rods to acquire the better quality goats and sheep. I choose, however, to view it differently: Jacob knew animal husbandry so well from his time tending Lavan’s flocks that he knew what to ask for and was thus able to acquire it. He was so talented as a shepherd that he won the wager with Lavan.

The lesson to take from this is the importance of continually honing one’s skills and not letting failure get you down but rather learning from it and using it to propel you forward. Jacob could have been bitter at having been tricked by Lavan into marrying Leah, and yet he learned from this trickery. He had more time to shepherd Lavan’s flocks and became an even better shepherd. The acquisition of the strong sheep and goats came about because Jacob honed his skills and bested his uncle.

In life we learn more from our failures than from the times we don’t put ourselves out there. Jacob grew greatly from his failure to marry the right woman. He also learned that one might want to peek under the veil to make sure he is really marrying his intended J. Perhaps most importantly, Jacob recognized that in life there are always strings attached to everything. If he had said to Lavan “Pay me the wages you owe me from the past 6 years,” he might have felt beholden to his uncle despite being entitled to the payment. Instead, Jacob creates a clever way to get the wealth he needed in terms of livestock by outsmarting Uncle Lavan. In so, let us recognize that life’s a long time and there is always the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and grow into the people we want to become each and every day.

[1] “The Crown of a Good Name” found in A Minyan of Comfort p. 136

[2] Genesis 30:31

[3] Genesis 30:31

[4] Rashbam on Genesis 30:31

Nature Versus Nurture: Is It An Appropriate Comparison?

Last August I saw two movies in the theater: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (referenced last week) and Three Identical Strangers. The latter details what occurs when triplets who were separated at birth become reunited. These boys did not know each other at all during their formative years and yet they all became wrestlers, smoked the same cigarettes, and had the same taste in women. The brothers had a happy reunion, settling in New York City and opening the rowdy and popular SoHo delicatessen Triplets. Each brother had a different upbringing: one was from a blue-collar family in Queens, another from a middle-class family in New Hyde Park, the third the son of a prominent doctor in Scarsdale.

Unfortunately the story takes a dark turn. They discover that in being given up for adoption by the Louise Wise Adoption Agency, they were put into a psychological experiment conducted by the Freudian psychologist Peter Neubauer on separating twins and triplets at birth.  The brothers meet their biological mother and have a difficult encounter with her. They have in-fighting, one of them leaving the Triplets business and stopping communication with his siblings. That brother was also charged in the slaying of a woman during an armed robbery. Another brother (the son of the prominent Westchester physician and the “popular” one of the three) commits suicide.  All three end up in psychiatric hospitals at different times in their lives.

Most of us would be horrified if such an experiment took place today; the cruelty of separating biological siblings. It is especially difficult to fathom that it was conducted by a man who fled Nazi persecution, as we know Mengele’s infamous experiments with twins. Three brothers with identical genes have completely different turn of events. This leads to the famous question: does nature or nurture dominate-and is it even worth looking into?

In this week’s parasha, we have the birth of two siblings who cannot be more different. We have the ruddy haired hunter Esau and the quiet Jacob. Isaac favors Esau for his hunting, whereas Rebecca favors Jacob. As twins both brothers grew up in the exact same home at the exact same time, so why are they so different? Even if Jacob and Esau are fraternal, I would not imagine them to be polar opposite in personality and temperament.

Three Identical Strangers gives us insight into this. The age-old question of nature versus nurture is not what we should be asking. Rather, our focus must be on what makes each person unique from his/her peer and how we can find a place for both of them. It is not supporting Jacob while castigating Esau but rather finding things to love about both personalities. Even three siblings with identical genes have completely different fates. The one with the hardest economic background, David Kellman, the son of a grocery store owner, appears to fare the best of the three. Is that because his parents were around more, or perhaps because he had to struggle more with adversity? Should we even be asking this question-after all it seems hutzpadik.

We are so quick to make comparisons, so eager to view things in black-and-white rather than in shades of gray. We do that all the time with Jacob, ignoring his faults while looking to vilify Esau, the one who threw away his inheritance over a bowl of stew. Yet what if we look at these characters through the complexities that comprise each human being’s life? What if instead of jumping to conclusions in our brains, we take a step back and appreciate each person for who s/he is and what s/he can contribute? It’s far too easy to look for answers: Why did Eddie Galland kill himself, why did Bobby Shafran disassociate himself from the other brothers? The answers are far more complex than the questions. Similarly, why did Esau want to kill his brother? Was he just talking, as many of us do when we are angry? Why did Jacob deceive Isaac? Did he want to do this or did his mother Rebecca manipulate him into doing it?

The goal is not to come up with “the answer” but rather to ask the questions and leave space for silence. Maybe we will get a satisfactory answer, maybe not. The bottom line, however, is we cannot wrap it in a nice, neat little bow. That’s what I found most powerful about the film Three Identical Strangers: the triplets and their parents never get a satisfactory answer as to why they were separated at birth for this eugenic, sickening psychological experiment. Anyone watching the film can come up with his or her own conclusion but the key question is left open-ended. That ambiguity has a realness to it; just like life.

May each of us, when we have uncertainty, whether about a major event in our lives, the Torah portion we are reading, the film we have just watched, the book we have just read, find comfort in knowing that life is about the uncertain. We can look for an answer but that doesn’t mean we will find one. Life is not a Hollywood film with a “happy ending” where everything makes sense. It is, rather, complicated. So too is Torah. There are 70 faces to the Torah, meaning one can continuously turn it over and arrive at an answer only to see something else and jump to a completely different conclusion. If our understanding of God or of characters such as Jacob and Esau remains where it was in 4th or 5th grade, then we have a stunted Judaism. My hope and prayer instead is that we continue to ask the questions with open eyes and an open mind, not knowing the answer our outcome we will reach. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our choice to do so.

Celebrating Life: A Response to Pittsburgh

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

Let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Won’t you please,
Won’t you please?
Please won’t you be my neighbor? [1]

 

When I got home from elementary school, I watched two shows on PBS. The first was Sesame Street; the second was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers always managed to capture my imagination with his insight and creativity. It’s very rare that I see a movie nowadays so I need to make it worth my time; when I was a “bachelor” for a week in August the first movie I saw was Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I knew I’d use it in a sermon but was unsure when. Today’s the day.

Last Saturday a man filled with hate, who used the social media site gab.com to spew his venom, walked into Congregation Tree of Life and murdered 11 people. The congregation is located in Squirrel Hill, a very Jewish area of Pittsburgh but also the neighborhood of Presbyterian Minister Fred (Mr.) Rogers. Unfortunately such an incident is the anathema of everything that Fred stood for; he used television as his ministry to bring children together, make them learn important life lessons such as kindness, patience and generosity. In the movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Mr. Rogers is shown after the 9/11 attacks, and it mentioned that before his public address, he was ashen and wondered what difference it would make. Yet he gave his final message, saying “I love you just the way you are.” I wonder what Robert Bowers would have turned into if his parents and classmates told him “I love you just the way you are.” I wonder if he still would have acted like Amalek, going on a rampage and shooting the vulnerable and elderly congregants in the rear of the synagogue.

What would Fred Rogers say in light of this massacre in his hometown? No one will know-לא המתים יהללו יה. I cannot look to my childhood exemplar for guidance-I need to do this on my own.

This week we read the Torah portion Haye Sarah, “the life of Sarah.” The portion begins ויהיו חיי שרה, these are the days of the life of Sarah.[2] The funny thing is the portion begins with her death-why therefore does it say the days of her life? The answer I like best is that we are celebrating each and every day of every week of every month of every year of Sarah’s life; who she was and the impact she made in the world.

I will now share about the days of the lives of every victim who was shot down in cold blood by the Jew-hater Robert Bowers at Tree of Life and New Light Synagogues. I do this to celebrate who they were and all that they contributed during their length of years; though each was taken before his/her time.

These are the days of the life of Joyce Feinberg z”l, a former research specialist who had been married to a world famous statistician. As a world traveler, she could not imagine living anywhere outside of Pittsburgh. She was a worrier about other people’s needs, devoted to her family and to her belated husband Stephen z”l. Her memory is for blessing.[3]

These are the days of the life of Irving Younger z”l the shamas and schmoozer of Tree of Life who had been a small business owner and youth baseball coach. Irving would arrive early and stay late at synagogue. He was an usher, guiding people to a seat and handing them a prayerbook. I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw this gunman walk into the room where the services were and his first thought was ‘Can I help this stranger get settled?’ — until he saw what the stranger was doing — because that’s the kind of thought that he would have,” said Barton Schachter, a past president of Tree of Life. His neshama should have an Aliya.[4]

These are the days of the lives of Bernice and Sylvan Simon z”l.  Sylvan Simon was a retired accountant with a good sense of humor. He was best friends with Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Berkun, who would have been in synagogue sitting next to the Simons if his wife had not asked him to stay home. Bernice Simon was a former nurse. She loved classical music and devoted time to charitable work. The Simons were going to celebrate a family birthday after Shabbat services. תהי נשמתם צרורה בצרור החיים.[5]

These are the days of the lives of Cecil and David Rosenthal z”l. Two brothers, each with their own challenges, who greeted attendees of Tree of Life Synagogue on Shabbat with prayerbooks as well as at weekday evening minyan at Beth Shalom. According to brother-in-law Michael Hirt, “David loved anything relating to the police or fire department.” Cecil was referred to as the “unofficial mayor of Squirrel Hill,” unafraid to go after what he wanted. He became a part of a Best Buddies chapter in 2005 when the organization shared a space with the disability services group Achieva, which helped and housed the Rosenthal brothers.” The brothers were inseparable, always together. Their memories are for blessing.[6]

These are the days of the life of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz z”l. This man never stopped smiling, and was believed by those who knew him to be a malakh, an angel. He compassionately took care of those who suffered during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. He was always present and smiling at whatever he was doing, even when filling the Dixie cups with grape juice. יהי זכרונו ברוך[7]

These are the days of the life of Daniel Stein z”l, a member of New Light Synagogue. A man who recently became a grandfather, Daniel had recently retired and worked at a funeral home and as a substitute teacher. He picked up his grandson from daycare each and every day, this simple gesture giving him the joy he needed. He will not be forgotten.[8]

These are the days of the life of Rose Malinger z”l, a 97 year old woman was a stalwart, attending services each and every Saturday. Her family reports that she retained her sharp wit, humor and intelligence until the very last day. Tree of Life Congregation was “her place to be social, to be active and to meet family and friends.” Her 61 year old daughter Andrea was wounded in the attack. We will remember her.[9]

These are the days of the life of Dr. Richard Gotfried z”l. Rich was a dentist who tried to ‘Heal the World’ with work treating immigrants and refugees at a health clinic. He was a father figure to many on his staff, and he truly engaged in tikun olam, repairing the world on a daily basis. His soul will rise higher and higher.[10]

These are the days of the life of Melvin Wax z”l. Melvin knew so much yiddishkeit and was the default lay service leader at Tree of Life. He often did bikur holim, visiting ill people in the congregation. His soul is bound up in the bond of life.[11]

Please Rise-God, Healer of the Broken Hearted, we turn to you at this moment of grief. We ask in Your mercy that those massacred in Pittsburgh, who came to synagogue to worship You, that they not have been murdered in vain. May we never forget their example, the devotion they gave to their congregational home, the love and kindness they demonstrated in how they lived their lives. Let their example inspire us to be vigilant, not jaded; active, not silent; focused, not distracted; strong, not weak. May those of us who showed up special for this Shabbat continue to honor us with your presence, recognizing that regardless of our beliefs, each of us is grateful to be alive and to be able to call the Jericho Jewish Center our spiritual home. May we remember these 11 righteous and pure souls not in how they were murdered but rather in how they lived. In your almighty name we pray, Amen.

[1] “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” by Fred Rogers

[2] Genesis 23:1

[3] https://nypost.com/2018/10/31/the-light-refuses-to-be-dimmed-family-honors-synagogue-shooting-victim/

[4] http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2018/10/28/Pittsburgh-Squirrel-Hill-mass-shooting-victim-Irving-Younger-Allderdice-school/stories/201810280226

[5] http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2018/10/28/Bernice-and-Sylvan-Simon-a-married-couple-from-Wilkinsburg-synagogue-shooting-victims-squirrel-hill/stories/201810280231

[6] http://time.com/5439625/cecil-david-rosenthal-pittsburgh-service/

[7] https://nypost.com/2018/10/30/renowned-aids-doctor-killed-in-synagogue-shooting-laid-to-rest/

[8] https://nypost.com/2018/10/28/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-victim-just-became-a-grandpa/

[9] http://www.post-gazette.com/news/crime-courts/2018/10/28/tree-of-life-mass-shooting-pittsburgh-victim-rose-mallinger-daughter-andrea-wedner/stories/201810280202

[10] http://time.com/5437946/richard-gottfried-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting/

[11] https://abcnews.go.com/US/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-victims-joyce-fienberg-melvin-wax/story?id=58872459