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.

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Jacob’s Dream

In summer 2015, Karina and I went to the Berkshires for summer vacation to see former congregants of mine from Tucson. Their summer home was in Becket, named after Thomas Becket, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. We were excited to see our friends, as well as Tanglewood, the Clark Museum of Art and the many other attractions the Berkshires have to offer. Our first night we went to a dance performance at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket as part of the Summer Dance Festival.

I thought ‘Jacob’s Pillow? That’s an odd name for a place.’ After all, Jacob’s pillow was a stone when he was a despairing refugee, on the run from his brother Esau, an outcast in an unknown place in the desert, somewhere between Beersheva and Haran. However, with the stone under his head, Jacob had the most incredible dream. It begins והנה סלם מצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה והנה מלאי אלקים עולים ויורדים בו: “Behold! A stairway was on the ground and its top reached heavenward and behold! The angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it.”[1]

What’s even more remarkable is how the dream continued. G-d introduced Himself to Jacob as the G-d of Abraham and the G-d of Isaac. G-d demarcated the ground on which Jacob is lying as being for Jacob and for his offspring. G-d stated that Jacob’s descendants shall be כעפר הארץ, as numerous as the dust of the earth[2] and then says the line now famous in a song: ופרצת ימה וקדמה וצפונה ונגבה, “you shall spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south.”  Jacob received the same blessing as Abraham did: ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה, “and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”[3] Even though Jacob is now “on the run” and leaving the Promised Land, G-d is assuring him that he will be brought back to Israel and will be protected by G-d throughout his perilous journey.

What is really going on here? Our sages teach that the dream is a metaphor. Ibn Ezra writes in the words of Shlomo the Spaniard: סלם רמז לנשמה העליונה, “the stairway is an allusion to the upper soul” and that the angels are מחשבות החכמה, the deep thoughts of wisdom that Jacob has had. In other words, this is not really a dream of angels going up and down a ladder but rather Jacob’s spiritual ascent in acquiring divine wisdom. Rabbi Yeshua states that the ascent on the סלם is Jacob’s prayers going up to heaven and the descent is ישועה, salvation or providence, descending from G-d down to him.[4] If that’s not figurative enough, let’s examine Baal HaTurim’s take. Through gematria, he derived the numeric value for the word סולם to be 136 which he states, among other things, is the same numeric value as the word קול or “voice.” He references the Zohar, asserting that the voice of the צדיקים, or ‘righteous ones,’ is the סולם, the stairway by which the angels ascend.[5]

A final popular take on the stairway, found in Ephraim of Lunshitz’s Kli Yakar, is that it references the sacrifices that were offered in Temple times. He referenced Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, proclaiming that the סלם is a כבש, or lamb, and that מצב ארצה, inclined upwards, references the מזבח, or altar, where sacrifices go straight to heaven. The sacrifices, or קורבנות, are intended to draw us closer (קרוב) to G-d, the same way that prayer functions in our synagogue. Jacob immediately strove to get closer to G-d, as the first thing he did upon rising was use the stone that was his pillow as a pillar on which he anointed with oil, demonstrating his commitment to a close relationship with G-d. That very site is called Beth-El, a city in the West Bank (and at one point the most popular name for Conservative synagogues in the United States.)

What do we learn from Jacob’s dream that we can apply to our lives? In my mind it’s simple: G-d speaks to us through numerous mediums, dreams being a central one of them. The Talmud teaches us that dreams are 1/60th of prophecy,[6] that G-d is communicating to us important lessons through our dreams. We should strive to get closer to G-d through remembering and understanding the messages inherent in our dreams, or if you’re like me and struggle to remember your dreams, through our intuition, or inner voice. G-d is constantly communicating with us, like G-d communicated with Jacob; if only we paid closer attention and were continually aware of the daily signs that G-d is showing us. As Rabbi Naomi Levy says in her book Einstein and the Rabbi “What if we were G-d’s dream?” G-d might be showing us that the pillows of our lives, which at times feel insignificant or interchangeable, might actually be nonnegotiable pillars.  May we take after Jacob’s example, striving to get closer to Hashem and to our life’s mission wherever we are at this particular moment in our lives.

[1] Genesis 28:12

[2] A little different than the promise made to Abraham, who was told “Look toward the heaven and count the stars if you are able to count them…such shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5)

[3] Genesis 12:3, Genesis 28:14

[4] Ibn Ezra Genesis 28:12 ד”ה סלם

[5] Baal HaTurim Genesis 28:12  ד”ה סולם referencing Zohar 1:166 (ח”א רסו)

[6] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 57b

How Do You Curry Favor with Others?

Some say that the key to a man’s heart is through his stomach. That appears to be the case in Parshat Toldot. We learn early on in the parsha that “Isaac loved Esau כי ציד בפיו but Rebecca loved Jacob.”[1] How do we translate the phrase כי ציד בפיו? Literally it means “for game in his mouth.” Did Isaac specifically love Esau because he brought him game (because he had a full belly) or is there more to Isaac’s love?

Commentators love to argue that Isaac’s love was conditional-that when the game disappeared, the love vanished as well. Kli Yakar stated this succinctly: בטל דבר בטל אהבה, once the matter (the meat) was gone, the love was gone.[2] Rebecca, on the other hand, loved Jacob unconditionally, as there is no clause explaining why she loved him. We have cause to pause, however, when we begin the following verse: ויזד יעקב נזיד, “Jacob cooked porridge.”[3] Or HaChaim, Rabbi Haim ibn Attar, felt it is too coincidental that Jacob is cooking after the Torah taught us that Isaac loved Esau on account of the game he brought. He wrote שראה שהועלה לגימתו של עשו ליצחק, לקח גם הוא דרך לבשל תבשילין לקרב לב אביו אליו כעשו, “as Jacob saw that Esau’s mouthful had its effect on Isaac, he too took up cooking dishes as a means to draw his father’s heart towards him, as Esau had done.”[4] In other words, Jacob saw that Isaac’s favor was curried through his stomach, and he attempted to do the same. He wanted the same love from his father that brother Esau received.

We further see the resonance of this interpretation when we look towards the end of our parsha. We learn in Chapter 27 that Isaac says to Esau “Take your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go out into the field and hunt me game. Then prepare a tasty dish for me like I love and bring it to me and I will eat it in order to bless you before I die.”[5] You don’t get much more explicit than that: hunt and prepare for me food בעבור (in order) for me to bless you. After a meal, when I am satisfied and strengthened, I will be able to give you a blessing.

All of this is well and good, yet Rashi cites two reasons as to why Esau curried favor with Jacob. The first is this literal interpretation that Esau gave him food. The second, however, from Midrash Bereshit Rabbah,[6] is that he would entrap him, and trick him with the words in his (Esau’s) mouth.[7]  The word ציד does mean game, or “hunted food,” as mentioned previously but it also means to entrap or ensnare, as that is how one catches the game. According to this Midrash, Esau is the predator and Isaac is the prey; Esau is manipulating Isaac and ensnaring him through false sycophancy. In this line of thought Isaac goes blind because he accepted “bribes” from Esau. Because Isaac allowed himself to become dependent upon Esau for food and support, he ignored Esau’s sinful behavior. As a result, G-d punished Isaac by making him blind and therefore further dependent on others.[8]

This leaves us with an essential question: is it better to curry favor through one’s actions (hunting game) or one’s words (flattery)? Whichever one you choose will put you in a different place in your life and will leave you with a completely different impression of Esau: either he is nothing more than a rugged hunter and provider or he is a shrewd operator, knowing precisely why he is bringing the game. Like Esau and Jacob, each of us wants to be favored; each of us wants to receive the great blessing. What is the best way for us to do so?

We know the end of this particular saga: Esau the hunter, the manipulator, was outplayed by his mother Rebecca. He wound up without the blessing he wanted and threatened to kill his brother Jacob. What can we learn from this story to avoid this happening in our own families? How can we ensure that there is more than one blessing, more than one right way for the story to unfold? This situation is so parallel to ours: each of us wants to be favored, to feel that we are blessed, whether in our job, in our relationships or in seeing the decisions that other loved ones make which impact us. How can we do so while avoiding the rift that we experience at the end of this week’s reading?

There is no easy answer to this-only questions to ponder as we continue with our services.

[1] Genesis 25:28

[2] Kli Yakar Genesis 25:28 ד”ה ויאהב יצחק את עשו כי ציד בפיו

[3] Genesis 25:29

[4] Or HaChaim Genesis 25:29 ד”ה ויזד יעקב. Translation from Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature.

[5] Genesis 27:3-4

[6] Bereshit Rabbah 63:10

[7] Rashi on Genesis 25:28 ד”ה בפיו

[8] Bereshit Rabbah 64. Found in Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznayim LaTorah, Genesis 25:28 ד”ה כי ציד בפיו

A Country United

People often say that we are a divided country, but two types of events changed that for the time being. First was the solar eclipse where people travelled across the country, interacting with people they had never met before to watch the eclipse. It did not matter whether one was Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Independent: all political differences were put aside as people reveled in this scientific wonder. It’s not surprising that rabbis in the Talmud viewed eclipses as curses; after all the sun went out. However, we are more likely to view them as momentous events to watch and celebrate together.

The other type of event unfortunately corresponds too well to today: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria, Nate, etc., as well as earthquakes in Mexico and the wildfires in northern California. After my sermon we will begin to acknowledge G-ds great power: משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם, that G-d causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall. At the end of the Geshem prayer, we will pray that G-d, who honored our ancestors through water, will do the same for us. So many acts from our history, including Isaac’s birth, the patriarchs meeting their wives, Moses’ saving, the exodus from Egypt and Aaron’s enacting atonement for the Jewish people are connected to water. For their sake, G-d, do not withhold water from us. The emphasis of Geshem is on avoiding drought, which was thought to be the result of some wrongdoing on our part. It led to a series of fasts, six additional prayers being added to the Amidah, and an additional Neilah prayer service in which we begged G-d for rain. Drought is not uncommon today, with fires occurring this summer in Arizona, California, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Georgia. We pray at the end of the Geshem prayer for rain to be given לשבע ולא לרזון, for abundance, and not for famine-and I would add to that for sustenance, not for flooding.

We say two additional aspects of prayer for Geshem. We pray that the rain falls לברכה ולא לקללה, for blessing and not for curse, and לחיים ולא למוות, for life and not for death. Rain in our tradition is considered a good thing that one should pray for and one cannot pray for it to go away.[1] What one can pray for is that rain that falls be for nourishing and life-producing, rather than for death and destruction.

Looking at all the natural disasters that befell our country we can have at least two reactions: anger and a call to action against climate change/global warming and/or aw at how people from different backgrounds and walks of life came together after these atrocities. For example, let us examine the following story: “As floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey rose across Houston and parts of Texas, people formed human chains, carried pets above their heads and hopped into boats to save people they’d never met. “[2] One story which in particular touched me was of a Houston woman who went into labor as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey surrounded her apartment. She was helped to a rescue truck by a human chain of neighbors and firefighters.

Thirty-two year old Dr. Annie Smith said she was mentally preparing herself to have to undergo a home birth on Sunday as she and her husband, Greg watched the rising floodwaters make the two mile drive to a hospital no longer an option. “When I saw all the flooding, I turned to Greg (also a doctor) and was like, ‘I’m really starting to get scared now,’” Annie Smith told ABC News. “It kind of dawned on me that this is it — I’m in actual labor.”

Greg Smith went into “super doctor mode,” according to his wife, and began collecting supplies around the house, like scissors and sewing needles, that could be used for the birth. He asked his mom, who was visiting, to boil water to sterilize the supplies.

A neighbor who went to check on the Smiths on Sunday morning sent an email to their apartment complex’s message page asking for help. Within 30 minutes, at least 15 people were in their apartment and ready to help with the delivery.

“There are a lot of medical trainees in the [apartment] complex, so a general surgery resident next door came over, and some emergency residents and finally an OB-GYN intern showed up too,” Greg Smith said. “People dug through their supplies and brought sutures and scalpels and anything that could be needed.”

The couple had been continuously dialing 911 and the Texas National Guard’s emergency number since 8 a.m. but never got an answer…A phone call made by Annie Smith to the director of her fellowship program, was what finally got a rescue crew to the Smiths’ front door. Less than an hour later, around noon, Greg Smith looked up and saw a truck arriving outside.  “I was with Annie, and I looked out the window, and I saw this big truck come pulling up, and I said, ‘Holy cow, I think someone is here for us.’” The water by that point was so high that the Smiths’ neighbors and firefighters formed a human chain to help Annie Smith to the back of the flatbed truck.

“I just kind of held on to them one person at a time and crawled along their arms until the firemen helped me up the ladder onto the truck,” she said. “I was sitting on a fire hose in the back of the truck with a shower curtain over my head and looking at all the floodwater around us thinking, ‘This is so bizarre.’”

The Smiths arrived at Texas Children’s Hospital about 15 minutes later…Adrielle, the couple’s first child, was born nearly 12 hours later, at 1:59 a.m. Monday, weighing in at 7 pounds, 6 ounces.

Adrielle, whose name is Hebrew in origin and means “belongs to God,” has already been given nicknames like “Little Harvey” and “the Hurricane” by family members.

“We’ve always wanted a little baby,” Greg told People magazine. When Annie didn’t get pregnant soon after her second miscarriage, the couple applied to ultimate authority.

“We felt like we had to surrender this to God,” Greg said. “Everything about this pregnancy is God’s will. That’s why her name is Adrielle. It means she belongs to God.”[3]

In this situation, no one asked “are you a Democrat or a Republican” before rescuing the Smiths. Similarly no one asked “are you Jewish or Christian?” All that mattered was that they were humans in need and that is what brought people to rescue them.

We need to think back to our own New York story, the first responders from 9/11 and from Superstorm Sandy. On Patriot Day, the new national name for September 11, people gathered at the memorial this year on the sixteenth anniversary. The sentiment, from Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Officer David Prudencio Lemagne, was “Our country came together that day. And it did not matter what color you were, or where you were from…I hope as we commemorate the 16th anniversary of 9/11, everyone will stop for a moment and remember all the people who gave their lives that day. Maybe then we can put away our disagreements and become one country again.”[4]

It should not take a national disaster like the atrocity that was the Las Vegas shooting, or a natural disaster like a hurricane, earthquake, wildfire or tornado, to bring people together. Rather, what should bring us together is our shared humanity and our desire to help one another make a difference in each other’s lives. Rather than being a country divided we must work towards being a country united.

What our country needs is for people to come together even when there’s not a national crisis. Think about the people from who we’ve become estranged during the past year. Are there ways for us to come back together, to reunite with them, recognizing that our shared humanity and relationships transcend any disagreement or argument we may have had? Let us also think about this as we remember loved ones who have physically left this world. If we have festering wounds, are there ways for us to find closure from them? If we have disputes with members of our family who are still living, what would our loved ones who have passed on say or do in order to bring us together?

Yizkor is not only about remembering but also about acting to create a better future. We remember in order to prevent future rifts, to bind the gaps that currently exist. As we pray for rain, let us also pray for no more natural disasters and concurrently that we do not need one to bring us together when we drift apart. May we strive to set a positive example for future generations and make our parents and grandparents proud of our actions as we set course on a path to be a people united with shared goals and a shared mission to benefit humanity. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

We continue with Yizkor on Page 506.

[1] See Taanit 23a, the story of Honi HaM’agel

[2] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/08/30/human-chains-among-viral-stories-inspiring-us-out-hurricane-harvey/615479001/

[3] http://abcnews.go.com/US/neighbors-form-human-chain-pregnant-woman-labor-wade/story?id=49489376

[4] https://www.yahoo.com/news/us-commemorates-9-11-thousands-expected-ground-zero-042138855.html?soc_trk=gcm&soc_src=ecd5e8af-dc90-3332-9efb-d522bf6b8dfa&.tsrc=notification-brknews

Spouses, Parents and In-Laws: Halakhic Perspectives on Addressing Conflict[1]

How does one handle family conflict? It’s natural for people to come into conflict with those to whom they are closest, as we are bound to have different ideas, desires and goals/aspirations. We give children life, raise them and yet ultimately they become independent human beings, with their own thoughts and opinions. We grow up in the same house as siblings, raised by the same parent(s) and yet we ultimately go different ways in life.

Much of Genesis is about life and all the messiness it contains: the story of the first families to inhabit the earth, the first examples of sibling rivalry and parental estrangement. It is very difficult to read many of these stories, yet strangely it gives us comfort in knowing that it could always be worse than our situation. I only know of one family in which the siblings agree on everything without conflict.

One of the sources of conflict begins after the creation of Eve. There our portion takes a rare moment to provide us with a homiletical teaching: על כן יעזב איש את אביו ואת אמו ודבק באשתו והיו לבשר אחד, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they shall be of one flesh.”[2] There’s an inherent cruelty to this verse: a man needs to leave his parents, the ones who gave him life? One needs to abandon their family of origin? That doesn’t sound like a positive message from a tradition that values family.

Rashi teaches us that’s not what the verse is saying. Rather it says that a man goes from being the product of his parents to producing his own children with his wife. He writes, “ושם נעשה בשרם אחד” in that child their flesh becomes one.[3]  That child will in turn grow up and do the exact same thing, leaving his/her parents to find a partner and create future children with them. Ramban or Nahmanides derives a different lesson. He says that the goal is not procreation per se for then humans would be no different from animals. Rather it is men “cleaving to their wives, seeing them as if they were with them as one flesh”[4] like Eve coming from Adam’s rib.

The rabbis, however, recognize that one never truly leaves his/her parents and that spouses must honor this. The Shulchan Aruch teaches that it is an obligation to honor one’s in-laws and that is a derivation of honoring one’s spouse.[5] Rambam, or Maimonides, teaches that “a man should tear his clothing upon the death of his father-in-law and mother-in-law out of respect for his wife; similarly, a woman should tear her clothing upon the death of her father-in-law and mother-in-law out of respect for her husband.”[6] At the same time, the rabbis teach that there are boundaries that need to be honored by both husband and wife. The Maimonides teaches “If a man says to his wife, ‘It is my wish that your parents and siblings not come into my domain,’ we accede to his demand, and his wife must obey him. She may go to her parents’ house if the occasion calls for it. She may also go to her parents’ house once a month, and for each holiday. And they shall not enter her home except in the instance of a significant event such as her falling ill or giving birth. We do not force a man to allow others into his domain. Similarly, if she says ‘It is my wish that your parents not enter my domain,’ or ‘I will not dwell with them in the same courtyard because they upset me and cause me distress,’ we accede to her wishes. For we do not force someone to live together with others in his/her domain.”[7] Raavad qualifies this as saying it only applies when the parents enter the children’s realm, not when the children enter the parents’ realm.[8]

While the rabbis establish the importance of domains and boundaries, they also indicate the danger of separation. The Talmud teaches that when Joseph said העוד אבי חי, “is my father still living?” that he had been separated from him for 22 years just as Jacob was separated from Isaac for 22 years (when he fled from Esau).[9] There’s something extremely sad about this type of separation, as well as the rabbinic tradition that the Maharam of Rotenberg did not visit or receive his father because he was unsure whether he should stand before his father to fulfill his obligation of כבוד אב (honoring his father) or whether his father should stand before him because he was a great scholar.[10]

למאי נפקא מינה-what’s the lesson that we derive from this? It seems clear that our tradition puts the spousal relationship on a silver platter, making that unit the one where both members need to take into account and honor the feelings and perspective of the other. Our tradition teaches that a man must מכבד אשתו יותר מגופו, show honor to his wife more than he does to himself,[11] and in our egalitarian society, the inverse is true as well. At the same time, our tradition recognizes the importance of a spouse giving honor to their partner’s parents and siblings. Though couples share an eternal bond, they do not do so in a vacuum but rather with each having grown up in a family of origin that needs to be respected. Our tradition teaches us that we avoid conflict both by honoring and respecting siblings and parents and by setting boundaries with our life partner (if we have one). In so doing, we can avoid some of the mistakes made by our ancestors in Sefer Bereshit.

[1] These sources are from a course entitled “Spouses, Parents and In-Laws: Halakhic Perspectives on Addressing Conflict” taught by Dr. Eliezer B. Diamond at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention 2016.

[2] Genesis 2:24

[3] Rashi on Genesis 2:24 ד”ה לבשר אחד

[4] Ramban on Genesis 2:24 ד”ה על כן יעזב איש את אביו ואת אמו

[5] Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer Siman 240

[6] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning, 8:5

[7] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Marriage 13:14

[8] Raavad gloss on Rambam 13:14

[9] Babylonian Talmud Megillah 17a

[10] In Shlomo Luria, Yam Shel Shlomo, Kiddushin 1:72

[11] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Marriage, 15:19

Joy In Simplicity

“Vanity of vanities,” says Kohelet; “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (הבל הבלים הכל הבל[1)] The word “vanity” is often used in translations for הבל yet I prefer the translation “wasted potential,” representing the life of הבל, or Abel, Cain’s brother, which was cut way to short by Cain’s fratricide.

We read these words every Sukkot yet we have to ask why? Yesterday we discussed the double joy that Sukkot brings, so why would we now say, on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot, that it is all in vain? This is particularly surprising when we consider that the ascribed author of Kohelet, better known to us as Ecclesiastes, is King Solomon.[2] Solomon, or Shlomo, means one who is at peace, and we know that King Solomon lived during a most prosperous time, when Israel was not at war with any of it neighbors, he was considered Israel’s wisest king, and he merited building the Temple as the House for G-d. Why would he be the one to say that all is vain and to have such a difficult book to read?

What’s further troubling is that Kohelet is a book of myriad internal contradictions. As is pointed out by numerous rabbis, Ibn Ezra especially, Kohelet contains over a dozen contradictions. One example is when he says ולשמחה מה זאת עושה לשחוק אמרתי מהולל (“of laughter I said ‘It’s maddening!’ of joy ‘what good is that?’”)[3] whereas six chapters later he proclaims ושבחתי אני את השמחה אשר אין טוב לאדם תחת השמש כי אם לאכול ולשתות ולשמוח (“I praised joy. For the only good a person can have under the sun is to eat, drink and enjoy himself.”)[4] He has a similar contradiction within that very chapter, stating יהיה טוב ליראי אלקים אשר ייראו מלפניו (“It will be good for G-d fearers for they revere G-d”)[5] yet two verses later he proclaims יש צדיקים אשר מגיע אלהם כמעשה רשעים (“There are righteous ones who suffer the fate of the wicked.”)[6] It definitely does not appear to be appropriate for the festival of joy, a day on which we read the Haftarah for the coming of the Messiah following the battle with Gog of Magog.

The rabbis don’t like Kohelet, proclaiming “O Solomon, where is your wisdom? Where is your understanding? Not only do your words contradict those of your father David, but they also contradict themselves. Your father David said לא המתים יהללו יה (“it is not the dead who praise G-d”)[7] but you said ושבח אני את המתים שכבר מתו-מן החיים אשר המה חיים עדנה “I thought the dad more fortunate who have died already, than the living who yet live.”[8] Then you (contradicted yourself by saying) כי לכלב חי הוא טוב מן האריה המת “Better a living dog than a dead lion.”[9] Therefore, the rabbis sought to ban Kohelet from the biblical corpus.[10]

Looking at Solomon’s life, we can see why this is the case. Though he appeared to have it all, the Book of Kings tells us that this was not the case. Deuteronomy is clear that the king shall not “acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt to add to his horses…And he shall not have too many wives, lest his heart go astray, nor shall he accumulate too much silver and gold.”[11] Solomon broke these commands from Deuteronomy having “700 wives, princesses and 300 concubines, and his wives turned his heart away,”[12] specifying that they did so “when he was old.”[13] He had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariots, 12,000 horsemen.[14] It specifies that “Solomon’s import of horses was from Egypt and Kue,[15] and the king’s merchants procured them from Kue for a price.”[16] Furthermore, Solomon had a huge corvee labor force: the remaining Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Do not worry-the text specifies that “of the people Israel, Solomon made no slaves.”[17] To build the Temple, Solomon had “70,000 that bore burdens, and 80,000 that were hewers in the mountains.”[18]

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that, in addition to Solomon violating Torah law, he “transformed Israel into a second Egypt,”[19] including allying himself with Pharaoh by marrying his daughter for a political alliance. King Solomon did not realize until it was too late that he “did that which was evil in the sight of G-d, and did not fully go after G-d, as did David his father.” His punishment was the splitting of the Kingdom of Israel under his son Rehoboam.

When Solomon reached the end of his kingship, he reflected on his pursuit of riches, recognizing that all he acquired was in vain. He sighed, saying, “I made great works; I built houses; I planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks, planting trees in them with all kinds of fruit. I made pools of water…I acquired servants…I had great possessions of herds and flocks…I gathered much silver and gold, and treasure such as kings and the provinces have as their own…then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.”[20] Solomon recognized that all the riches in the world could not save his legacy.

On Sukkot we prove King Solomon’s lesson. We are no longer confined to the palaces that are our homes; rather we live in a simple booth. We do not seek after the security of our possessions; rather we prove that we can live in the simplicity “a hut, with only leaves for a roof, exposed to the wind, the cold and the rain, and still rejoice.”[21]

We find joy in simplicity, rather than in keeping up with the Joneses; in community, rather than our individual palaces, in believing that there is a much deeper and more significant meaning to life than our possessions. That is the joy that we are celebrating today, a joy which is mentioned throughout the book of Kohelet. That is what we gather to celebrate today; the deeper meanings and purposes of life: our congregational family, our community. Let us learn from Solomon/Kohelet’s example and strive after the right things, those which make a difference to us, to our families and to our personal legacies.

[1] Kohelet 1:2

[2] He is given the name Kohelet (קהלת) to indicate that he spoke before the congregation (קהל) of Israel. His name is in the feminine because he is speaking wisdom literature (ספרות חכמה) which is feminine.

[3] Kohelet 2:2

[4] Kohelet 8:15

[5] Kohelet 8:12

[6] Kohelet 8:14

[7] Psalms 115:17

[8] Kohelet 4:2

[9] Kohelet 9:4

[10] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 30b

[11] Deuteronomy 17:16-17

[12] 1 Kings 11:3

[13] 1 Kings 11:4

[14] 1 Kings 4:26; in 1 Kings 10:26 it lowers the number to 1,400 horsemen and 12,000 horsemen

[15] 1 Kings 11:4

[16] 1 Kings 10:28

[17] 1 Kings 9:22. Rabbi Sacks points out that it the fact that this needs to be mentioned is by itself alarming!

[18] 1 Kings 5:29

[19] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ceremony and Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays (Jerusalem, Maggid Press, 2017), p. 135-6.

[20] Kohelet 2:4-11

[21] Sacks, p. 138.

Simhat Beit HaShoevah: The “All Nighter” Water Drawing Festival

What was the most joyous holiday of the Jewish people during Temple times? It was Sukkot, referred to as HeHag, or “The Festival.” Sukkot was joyous because of the water drawing festival, or “Simhat Beit HaShoeva.” Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, my teacher in Jerusalem, wrote “Originally, this ritual had nothing to do with rain. It was designed to establish the newly renovated altar and Temple in Jerusalem as the navel or center of the earth, connected to the subterranean foundation stone[1] and the abyss beneath it, upon which the earth was created.”[2] However, over time Sukkot became connected to rainfall, as we know through the recitation of the prayer for rain on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of the Sukkot assembly.

To learn about this festival we need to go no further than Mishnah Sukkah, which states “pious and distinguished men danced before the people with lit torches in their hands and sang hymns before them; the Levites accompanied them with harps, lyres, cymbals, and innumerable musical instruments. On the fifteen steps leading to Ezrat HaNashim, the women’s chamber, stood the Levites, who sang and played musical instruments. At the upper gate, leading down from Ezrat Yisrael, the court of the Israelites, to the court of the women, stood two priests with trumpets in their hands. At dawn they blew a blast, a long note and a blast. They repeated this when they reached the tenth step and again when they reached the court of the Israelites. They blew their trumpets as they marched.”[3]

The Gemara elaborates on this festive celebration: “Our Rabbis taught: He who has not witnessed the rejoicing at Simhat Beit HaShoeva has never seen rejoicing in his life. He who has not seen Jerusalem in her splendor, has never seen a desirable city in his life. He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life.”[4]

The celebration continued throughout Sukkot-and boy was it a party! The Talmud continues: “It was taught: They said of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel that when he rejoiced at the Rejoicing at the place of the Water-Drawing, he used to take eight lighted torches (and throw them in the air) and catch one and throw one and they did not touch one another; and when he prostrated himself, he used to dig his two thumbs in the ground, bend down, kiss the ground, and draw himself up again, a feat which no other man could do.”[5] It continues, “Levi used to juggle in the presence of Rabbi Judah the Prince with eight knives, Samuel before King Shapur with eight glasses of wine, and Abaye before Rabbah with eight eggs or, as some say, with four eggs.”[6]

In what was structured as a firsthand account, we are told that this ceremony was like no other. The first hour [was occupied with] the daily morning sacrifice; from there [we proceeded] to prayers; from there [we proceeded] to the additional (מוסף) sacrifice, then the prayers to the additional sacrifice, then to the House of Study, then the eating and drinking, then the afternoon prayer, then the daily evening sacrifice, and after that the Rejoicing at the place of the Water-Drawing [all night]. But then we have a contradiction-It cannot be so! For did not Rabbi Yohanan rule, He who says, ‘I take an oath not to sleep for three days’ is to be flogged so he will sleep? — The resolution-what was meant was this: ‘We did not enjoy a proper sleep’, because they dozed on one another’s shoulders.[7] In other words, no one went to bed, just napped from time to time, because of all the fireworks and energy emanating from this festival.

There was so much celebration that the rabbis were afraid of debauchery. They therefore enacted what was the first mehitza: The Talmud teaches “Our Rabbis have taught: Originally the women used to sit within [the Court of the Women] while the men were outside, but as this caused levity, it was instituted that the women should sit outside and the men inside. As this, however, still led to levity, it was instituted that the women should sit above and the men below.[8]

What relevance does this festival have in our lives today? How do we return to a time when Sukkot is החג, THE FESTIVAL? The Gerer Rebbe, in his book Sefat Emet, wrote that Simhat Beit HaShoeva is when we draw G-d’s spirit, the רוח הקודש, into our lives. It can only be holy joy, joy for the purpose of connecting to something greater than ourselves, rather than any form of base joy. Therefore the purpose was not debauchery but rather elevation of G-d’s holiness.[9] Unfortunately, some people misunderstood the intent and let loose too much, requiring safeguards to have to be instituted. Our tradition teaches that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai stopped this ceremony because the number of adulterers increased.[10]

Sukkot must be a celebration for getting past the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We should have festive meals with l’chayims and celebrate with family and friends-by the way, please join us for our Sukkot Open House this coming Sunday. At the same time, we can do so without the level of levity (קלות ראש) of our ancestors at Simhat Beit HaShoeva. In Jerusalem today on Hol HaMoed, they have a party which they refer to as Simhat Beit HaShoeva but it is tempered down from that of Temple times.  This Sukkot let us take opportunities to celebrate together, to truly engage in making this  a special Festival.

 

[1] Called אבן השתיה, which we refer to in Hoshanot on this, the 2nd Day of Sukkot

[2] Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, commentary on Bavli Sukkah chapters IV and V: Talmud Ha-Igud: Lulav VeAravah veHahalil, Jerusalem 2013, pp. 401-410.

[3] Mishnah Sukkah 5:4

[4] Talmud Bavli Tractate Sukkah 51b

[5] Talmud Bavli Tractate Sukkah 53a

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sukkah 51b

[9] Sefat Emet, 536

[10] Mishnah Sotah Chapter 9 Mishnah 9