Parshat Mishpatim

Torah Reading for Week of February 3-9, 2013

“Peace Starts At Home”
By Rabbi Avivah Erlick, ‘09


Patients I visit in my chaplaincy work often ask me if the term “Jewish chaplain” is an oxymoron. Doesn’t “chaplain” mean Christian? Am I not really a rabbi? And is what I’m doing, sharing spiritual presence and nondenominational prayer with people of all backgrounds, not really Jewish?

The idea that Jews need to steer clear of non-Jews in prayer is deeply rooted in our texts. In this week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, for example, the Israelites are told that that they will need to “smash the pillars to bits”, demolishing the holy places and objects of the foreign religions they will encounter when they overtake the land that will be Israel.

As a professional interfaith chaplain as well as a rabbi, I have come to feel that assertions such as this in our texts have been misunderstood by many Jews, and that this has led to needless parochialism and fear. Interfaith work is not only okay, I see it as a pure expression of Jewish teachings, and the reason why I am drawn to it.

At the same time our tradition teaches the importance of avoiding the practices of other faiths, we are taught to take care of all people. Rabbi Akiva addressed this balance: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” We wish to live in a world of mutual trust and honoring of difference – where no one would wish to deprive us of our own, personal relationship with the Holy One, and we need to afford others the same respect. I am privileged to be able to model this through my work.

Jewish chaplains need not say the “foreign” words of other traditions. I was once asked to perform an “Anointing of the Sick” (it used to be called “Last Rites”) for a dying Catholic when no priest or Christian chaplain was available. I got the booklet of prayers and divided them up; I read the 23rd Psalm while family members read the prayers with Christian doctrine and verbiage in them. As I held the spiritual space, a family otherwise too distressed by the moment was able to relax into the eternity of this opportunity, to bring blessing to their loved one as they transitioned away from this world. They were very grateful for the opportunity.

Leaving the pillars of other faiths in place is very Jewish indeed. By understanding the Parsha’s teaching differently, we can see the message in a new light: as a command to reject values that undermine human connection and understanding. Smash obstacles to mutuality. Hate “hate,” and love “love.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Avivah Erlick is the president of LA Community Chaplaincy Services, an interfaith referral agency for rabbis and certified chaplains. Find her on the Web at

Parshat Beshallach

Torah Reading for Week of January 20-26, 2013


“Getting Lost on the Way to Finding Ourselves”
By Rabbi Meredith Cahn, ‘11


Do you remember this story?

A true believer in G-d falls into a raging river. He knows that G-d will save him, so he does not worry. Someone throws a rope to him, but he refuses to grab on, because he knows that G-d will save him. Then a Coast Guard boat arrives. He refuses again. Then a helicopter comes and lowers a diver. Again he refuses.

He drowns.

He arrives in heaven and has an audience with the Holy Blessed One, at which he asks: “Why did you let me drown?”

The Spirit of the Universe answers, “What do you mean? I sent people with a rope, a Coast Guard boat and a helicopter. You refused to take them.”

Beshallach, our parasha, opens with two curious verses:

When Pharaoh had let the people go, G-d led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for G-d said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So G-d led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. (Ex. 13:17-18)

We had just been liberated from slavery. Generally, in liberation stories, we hear about the exuberance, the relief, the joy—before that moment when reality happens.

G-d worries that if we glimpse harsh reality, we will decide the old ways, however hard, are better than the unknown. We will decide that it is better to suffer the slings and arrows of what we know, than strike out and take a risk.

Torah scholar and author, Dr. Avivah Zornberg notes that G-d is concerned that we might have a change of heart, and hence decides to take us the roundabout way, making it harder to go back.

Not long after, we reach the Sea of Reeds. The Egyptians are separated from us by the pillars of smoke and cloud. With them behind us and the sea in front, we start our long kvetch: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?” (Ex. 14:11)

This is the original version of our opening story. G-d has done everything for us: sent the ten plagues, kept the Egyptians on the other side of the pillars. At what point do we reach out for the rope?

In B. Sota 37a, the rabbis tell us what happened next. At the shore of the Sea, Moses had raised the mighty staff as G-d had instructed him, but nothing happened. The congregation was scared to move. Nachshon ben Aminadav waded in. Up to his ankles. Up to his knees. Up to his waist. His chest. He keeps going, because he knows that G-d will save him. He is in up to his nose… and at that moment, the waters part. His courageous act of faith was the last necessary ingredient for the miracle to happen.

His ability to face his fears and risk his life is the counter story, the other narrative, telling us what we need to do in this moment.

This parasha teaches us that overcoming our slave mentality, moving toward our own liberation, sometimes requires putting up obstacles from our old ways. It means that we need to step in up to our noses. We need to outsmart ourselves. Sometimes we need to lose our way to find our true path.

Parshat Bo

Torah Reading for Week of January 13-19, 2013

“Weighing One’s Heart”
By Rabbi J.B. Sacks, D.Min, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

Pharaoh’s heart becomes the object of the reader’s attention in this week’s parasha. The Holy One is portrayed as “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart. This surely propels readers to consider the kind of Deity who manipulates human beings into doing bad things. After all, if Pharaoh is so bad to begin with, why did the Holy One need to harden Pharaoh’s heart? An even more difficult problem comes with contemplation of the other possibility: if Pharaoh is inclined to negotiate and let the Israelites go, why would the Holy One harden Pharaoh’s heart at all? In either case, G-d in this drama appears as an unseemly character, manipulative and controlling.

However, G-d here does not actually harden Pharaoh’s heart. The verb used for G-d’s action comes from the root k-v-d, literally meaning “to weigh.” So G-d does not “harden” Pharaoh’s heart, but gives it weight. What does this mean? From a spiritual perspective, we know that feelings are what can give a heart weight… Pharaoh has not been a person who can feel, for he has been absorbed in his own mystique, in his self-presentation as chief of the pantheon of Egyptian gods, in his constant vigilance to maintain power and to increase his profits through continued exploitation and oppression of his workers. His ability to care for others is woefully undernourished.

Once Pharaoh’s heart can feel, it still becomes a journey for him to actually do so. The root k-v-d also means “to honor, to respect.” Pharaoh cannot honor his own feelings, or, literally, give “weight” or gravity to them. It is difficult for the egocentric to enlarge the range of their emotional radar screen beyond the I. Pharaoh finally feels when his own son is swept up in the final plague, that of the death of the first-born, but the power of feeling overwhelms him, and he quickly reverts back to the more comfortable terrain of emptiness. Pope John II noted that “the worst prison would be a closed heart,” and Pharaoh personifies this syndrome.

Pharaoh’s story, then, becomes a morality tale of what happens when empty hearts remain empty. We see what happens, and we want to become anyone but that person. We resolve to avoid the prison that a closed heart imposes, and seek to fill it up. As we do so, we notice that we have more and more room for more and more feelings, and more and more kindness, as our hearts continue to fill. The paradox, of course, has been so ably expressed by the Italian poet, Antonio Porchia: “In a full heart there is room for everything, and in an empty heart there is room for nothing.”

The contemplative life requires more time and attention, and we each deserve it. When we give “weight” and “honor” to our own feelings, we can open our hearts to others—and can honor and respect others. The Torah teaches that the heart of oppression and exploitation begins when we bypass our human calling and spiritual need for reflection and contemplation. This is the real Egypt (mitzrayim, “narrow place”), and it is the root of all oppression and is appropriately epitomized by Pharaoh. When we start engaging in meditation and the life of the spirit, we begin to find a way out, an emotional exodus, that can lead all of us on the right path toward our spiritual Promised Land. So may it be for us this year, and every year.


Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Va’era

Torah Reading for Week of January 6-12, 2013


“Anything but a Fairy Tale”
By Hazzan Paul Buch, ‘05


While waiting to board the airplane at the start of a recent trip to Oregon, I came across a review of a new edition of The Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, edited and translated by the English author and playwright Phillip Pullman.  Much of Pullman’s well-regarded work is in the realm of fantasy and young adult literature. Though that is more the interest area of my two sons, I was intrigued nonetheless and decided to download the collection to my e-reader before takeoff.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Pullman’s introduction alone made the purchase worthwhile. There he helped illuminate a key reason why I find the study of Torah so fascinating and relevant, and why I bristle at the idea that our sacred literature can be lumped with the likes of Snow White, Rumplestiltskin and Cinderella as just more fairy tales.

Before he offers his cogent and largely unexpurgated translation of 210 of the Grimm Brothers collected stories, Pullman looks at the distinguishing characteristics of the fairy tale form and points out that the literature, by definition, contains no complex characters but solely “conventional stock figures.”

“There is no psychology in a fairy tale,” Pullman writes. “The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad . . . The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious . . . They seldom have names of their own.”

And it was that last line that, like the “ding” of a passenger call button in mid-flight, connected, for me, Pullman’s insight with this week’s Torah portion.  As Parashat Va’era opens, G-d’s key concern is that Moses understand that, unlike those “stock convention figures,” lacking depth and nuance, the Holy One is a fully dimensioned being who maintains what a screenwriter (or any writer) would call a “character arc”; that G-d began a relationship with our ancestors from a certain perspective and, through events in the story of that relationship, the character changes.  “I am the Lord.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known them by my name yud-heh-vav-heh ,” the text relates in Exodus 6:2-3. “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered my covenant.  Say therefore to the Israelite people, I am yud-heh-vav-heh.  I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.” (Exodus 6:6.  All translations from NJPS Tanakh, 1985).

This scene, with the hesitant and unsure Moses preparing to embark on the archetypical “hero’s journey” at G-d’s behest, typifies for me why Torah has such power and relevance.  The characters of our ancient stories have both an emotional and intellectual existence.  They feel, they evolve, they respond, they grow.  When we look seriously into their personalities, we can’t help but see ourselves.  As I often share with my students, the challenges and situations our ancestors faced, viewed through the lens of Torah, are the same we face today- how to overcome that which holds us back from living a meaningful, integrated life; how to summon the courage to tackle the seemingly impossible; how to find a source of strength and support to carry us through great challenges.

When Theodore Herzl set out to convince world leaders and specifically world Jewry that the creation of a Jewish state was possible, most said to him, “You’re crazy!”  But Herzl, motivated, it seems, by scenes such as we find in this week’s portion, would respond with a quip that contained a not-so subtle reference to the tales of the Grimms. “Wenn ihr vollt, Ist es kein Märchen,” he would say, using a phrase ending with the German word,that was part of the title of the original 1805 Grimm edition (Kinder- und Hausmärchen- Children’s and Household Tales).  This became a famous saying when brought into Hebrew as Im tirtzu, ein zu agadah, but rendered directly in English it means “If you want something bad enough, it’s no fairy tale.”  May these words and all the best teachings of our tradition continue to inspire and guide us as we, like Moses and yes, even G-d, encounter the next chapter in our Märchen.

Parshat Shemot

Torah Reading for Week of December 30, 2012-January 5, 2013

“The Scream and the Niggun”
By Rabbi Eli Schochet, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Talmud

The Scream, a highly evocative painting by the Norwegian artist Edwin Munch, was recently purchased at Sotheby’s for 120 million dollars!  Its mood is terrifying as are its colors.  It portrays a fearful man alone in a world awry.

Munch tried to explain the experience he sought to portray.  “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly the sky turned red as blood…tons of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord…I lagged behind shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”

And so the figure stands trapped upon a bridge with nowhere to turn.  His hands are glued to the sides of his distorted face as a scream emerges from his mouth.

Verily, 120 million dollars is a high price to pay for such agony!  One could say it is a classic case of oisgevorfen gelt (or “needlessly squandering money”).

The Hebrew word for scream is tze’akah, and it appears in this week’s Torah portion.  The context is the indescribable brutality of slavery experienced by our ancestors.  “And the children of Israel…cried out (lit. “screamed”) and their cry came up unto G-d.”

Both the Torah’s account of Israel’s servitude in Egypt and Munch’s painting bear witness to the truth that a scream can be a call to G-d from a world gone mad.  It constitutes a wordless prayer but an exceedingly eloquent one.

G-d hears the cry of the Israelite slaves and brings forth their exodus from servitude.  Today’s Torah reading screams of terror will be transformed a few weeks and chapters later into songs of thanksgiving at the Red Sea.

A joyful niggun is also a prayer/song without words, and it too is similarly endowed with intense power and pathos.  It emotes an ecstatic sense of gratitude, wonder and appreciation that the words of our limited emotional vocabularies cannot begin to convey.  However, the mood of the niggun is one of “faith” not “fear”.  What emerges from the niggun is a song not a scream.

Standing on the threshold of the new year of 2013 we are confronted by terrors and anxieties that grip our world.  May we pray that our deep, wordless, emotional expressions for the coming year will take the form of niggunim, songs of faith and gratitude, not screams of terror.  May the expressions of joy adorning the canvases of our faces and those of our loved ones be worthy of fetching priceless sums at Sotheby’s.

Parshat Vayigash

Torah Reading for Week of December 16-22, 2012


“Bound Souls”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D. ’11


The Joseph Narrative, which spans Genesis 37:1 to Genesis 50:26, beginning with the identification of Joseph as his father’s most beloved son and progressing through Joseph’s death, is a family saga as well as a Toratic bildungsroman. Rich in plot, symbolism, motivation and characterization, Nahum Sarna famously characterizes the Joseph Narrative as unique in the Torah due to its “unparalleled continuity of narrative.”

But Parshat Vayigash, the fourth and final parsha of the Joseph Narrative, does not display structural continuity. On the contrary, Vayigash begins as an abrupt break in the middle of Joseph’s story–what Avivah Zornberg calls “Perhaps the most dramatic break” between parshiot in the entire Torah. This break means that the final segment of the story begins with the words “Vayigash eilav Yehudah” (“And Judah approached him”), giving such emphasis to the word Vayigash that “And he approached” becomes the name of the parsha.

Indeed, Judah’s decision to approach the Egyptian lord is a desperate strategy: attempting to reach the man behind the mask of power, Judah appeals both to his status and to his humanity, beginning with humility but presuming to ask if the great man has a father or a brother, explaining that his own father’s beloved son was torn to pieces and that if something should happen to the remaining son, it would mean his father’s death, for “the soul of the one is bound up with the soul of the other.”

The complex interplay of relationships between father, sons and brothers that informs the Joseph Narrative rises to a crescendo of anguish in Vayigash.  Like the 17th century English poet Ben Jonson, whose “On My First Sonne” describes his despair at the death of his son Benjamin, the “child of my right hand, and joy,” Jacob’s grief at Joseph’s supposed death has never been assuaged. The sons who may have dreamt of winning their father’s love in the absence of his favorite have been schooled in irony, for Jacob has never stopped yearning for his lost Joseph. Inevitably, Rachel’s younger son, Benjamin, has become his father’s raison d’etre, the treasure that the guilty brothers must safeguard, for Benjamin provides Jacob’s life with meaning–so much so that his life ensures his father’s. But, as Vayigash makes clear, Jacob’s enmeshment with Benjamin is no solution for a family that is starving not merely for food but for a resolution of its painful history. In truth, there is not a member of the family whose soul is not bound to the events and consequences of a long-ago day.

Judah’s decisive approach signals the denouement of the Joseph Narrative, a dramatic revelation so grippingly poignant that Tanchuma says that angels descended from heaven to listen in on the dialogue in this parsha. In the language of Muriel Rukeyser, Joseph has been “split open, unable to speak, in exile” (“The Poem As Mask”); now, in response to Judah’s catalyst, he does speak, revealing not only his identity but his longing; in doing so, he sets his family on a course of healing and reunification that is, literally, life-saving for them all.

But, as the midrash to Vayigash makes clear, there is still more to this part of the story, though the plot of Joseph Narrative moves on. The true mark of the brothers’ spiritual release from the bonds of envy, deception, guilt and shame that have so long shackled them is their collaboration as they consider how to inform their father that he has no need to fear more loss and that his long-lost son will be restored to him. Their decision to enlist Asher’s daughter Serach to gently break the news to Jacob that Joseph is alive and prospering in Egypt suggests that this action-orientated, male-dominant family has truly been transformed. No longer driven by the fear and loss of their collective past, the brothers are able to value and trust a perspective that is both female and from the younger generation. Their concern that their aged father might die from shock upon hearing the astounding news that Joseph is alive and well suggests that the brothers have matured emotionally. The brothers’ reliance on a young girl who, the midrash tells us, waits for just the right moment to relay the news to her grandfather through rhyming song while accompanying herself on the harp, suggests that they, too, understand that healing requires time, patience, gentleness and trust.

Serach acquires immortality when her grandfather blesses her that death may never rule over her, for her message brings his “spirit back to life.” As the resuscitator of Jacob’s spirit, she embodies this story’s happy ending: the healing power of hope to release and transform even the most tightly bound soul.

Parshat Vayehi

Torah Reading for the Week of December 23-29, 2012


“And Jacob lived”
By Rabbi Eli Schochet, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Talmud

When I attained the ripe old age of “retirement” and retired from my congregation, I received a phone call from my friend and senior colleague, Rabbi Jacob Pressman.

“Eli, let me pose a question to you,” he began.  “Do you know what the best thing about retirement is?”

Various images floated through my mind as I considered the question…leisure reading time, taking vacation trips, wearing shmatte shirts, spoiling grandchildren more effectively than ever before, etc., etc.

Rabbi Pressman interrupted my reverie, “The best thing about retirement is that you will now have all the time you need for your medical appointments.”

He was 100% correct.  My medical date book of today is by far busier than is the most attractive Hollywood starlet’s social datebook.

However, when I am not in doctors’ offices, I am blessed in being privileged to spend my hours teaching at the AJRCA.  This is by far the best thing about old age and retirement for me.

This week’s Torah reading, Vayehi, commences with a simple sentence: “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years.”  The elderly patriarch settled in Egypt to live out his years there.  However, the phrase “Vayehi” is subject to deeper interpretations as well.  The aged Jacob did not simply “live” in Egypt.  His life there took on a special quality.

According to the Sefat Emet, the text connotes his being able to live on a deep spiritual level.  Tanna d’vei Eliyahu comments that during the years of Jacob’s sojourn in Egypt he was blessed with me’in olam habaah…with a semblance of the peace of mind and equanimity of soul that characterizes dwellers in the world to come.

It is a fact that sometimes our best years in life are the twilight years, medical trials and tribulations notwithstanding.  There are blessings attendant in old age; one permits oneself the leisure contemplation of ideas and ideals through older (if not wiser) spectacles.  One is ever more appreciative of the gifts of health which one still possesses.  One is touched by and treasures all the more the companionship of friends and family.

But one is especially blessed if one can immerse oneself in the world of Torah.  Teaching Talmud to the special and sensitive students at the AJRCA is a true spiritual high for me.  I can identify with Father Jacob.  Certain Torah experiences are, indeed, a foretaste of the world to come.  They enable one to truly live in the fullest sense of the word.  It is the very best part of retirement.

Parshat Miketz

Torah Reading for Week of December 9-15, 2012


“What’s in a Name?”
By Rabbi Neil F. Blumofe, ‘09

Miketz ends, moments before Tsafnat Paneiach, overcome with emotion, reveals himself to be Yosef, the brother who was sold into slavery and assumed lost.  As Yosef diverts his brothers, hiding from them and stringing them along, our commentators teach that throughout, Yosef was connected to haShem’s overall plan – that this reunification ultimately, was meant to be – and that Ya’akov and his family were destined to move to Egypt, and the Jewish people into exile. All of this dissembling by Tsafanat Paneiach is somehow inevitable.  But let us consider Yosef – in stark contrast to his ancestors, he was a young man when he was handed authority – having led a life of transition and unexpected circumstances, prior to his ascension to power and the assumption of his exile name.  He owes his freedom and the recovery of his name to the direct intervention of Pharaoh, the greatest ruler in the Ancient Near East.  As much as he may possess ruach Elohim, Yosef is constantly adjusting to change and his circumstances.  He may possess deep insight and even vision, but he too must react to life – in his life, he must sort out what he has the ability to change and what for him can never be altered and how circumstances can change, instantly.

Pharaoh is the agent to deliver haShem’s plan, in this moment.  Our sages teach that the only difference between exile and redemption is the revelation of the shechinah — all of the exiles and troubles that we endure have an aspect of hester panim, the concealment of G-d’s Presence.  Once we notice the light within our hardship, our hardship can instantaneously dissipate and the shell in which we cloak ourselves, can then fall away.

Like Yosef, we are often, in times of flux or unexpected circumstance, perhaps crafting or caught in a situation beyond our control.  Frequently we find ourselves in situations not of our own making or having to balance between time commitments, obligations or even the lesser of two evils.  To who are we loyal? To what are we loyal?  How do we shift responsibility, or sidestep blame?  What deserves our attention and our time? How do we keep focused on what matters most to us?  The odd maneuvering that Yosef displays with his brothers are his attempts to find control in his life.  He is struggling with this new reality (his brothers appear in Mitzrayim to buy food in a time of famine) and he is trying to come to terms with his conflicting emotions, doubts, insecurities, fears and anger.  As we celebrate this Festival of Dedication (Hanukah), may we echo the actions of G-d who dared to bring a world into being, declaring, “Let there be light!” Let us too, promote life and act godly when we declare, “Let there be light in our world that contains so much darkness—the darkness of suffering, of loneliness, of pain.  May the light of our goodness dispel even a little of the darkness, and may our true names shine forth from the dark chambers of delay and evasion.”

Parshat Vayeshev

Torah Reading for Week of December 2-8, 2012

“The Trials of Jacob – Growing through Adversity”
By Rabbi Aaron Parry, AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics

There was a song I vividly remember from my ‘70’s sojourn into pop music called “Needle And The Damage Done.” I’m not sure who first wrote it but I heard Neil Young sing it in concert:

I’ve seen the needle
and the damage done
a little part of us in everyone
every junkie’s like a setting sun

Whether or not there’s a little “junkie,” in each and every one of us is subject to debate, however, I know each Jew has the spark of our Avos and Imahos within and that there are significant ramifications as a result. Take this week’s parsha, for instance, Vayeshev. Jewish life is so unpredictable and enigmatic. Yaacov wants to “rest” (Vayeshev) and take respite from the grueling, hard-earned victories in the challenges with Lavan and Esav. He figures the worst is behind him. But the show is just about to begin. Who could predict that after one heck of a sibling rivalry between Yaacov and Eisav that the most riveting sibling controversy in Jewish history would now begin?

All sorts of mysterious and inexplicable events conspire to create this incredibly dramatic and beyond-Hollywood story. What possessed Yaakov to give Yosef a special kaleidoscopic tunic and demonstrate such affection and favoritism in front of his other children? Why does he send Yosef on such an obviously dangerous mission to “find” his brothers? Who is the mysterious man that leads into the lair of Shimon and Levi? And why do all these events lead to the sale of Yosef as a slave destined for Egyptian bondage? Finally, later in the parsha, how does Yehuda commit such a seemingly immoral act and why is he instead rewarded as being the ancestor of Jewish monarchy and messianic destiny?

The Ishbitza, Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, (an early 19th Century rabbinic and Hasidic thinker and founder of the Izhbitza-Radzyn dynasty of Hasidic Judaism and disciple of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk) shares a most perceptive insight into the way G-d challenges each one of us. When Yaakov prevails over the angel of Esav, this adversary himself renames Yaakov to Yisrael, as the Torah proclaims “For you strove with angelic beings and man and have prevailed.” The Ishbitza asks “Why doesn’t the Torah use the word ‘Netzeach’ (connoting “victorious,”) instead of the tentative language ‘Tuchal,’ (lit. “you were able,” or prevail)?”

Contained in his answer is the “little part of Yaakov in everyone.” That is, when a person is given a hurdle and overcomes it after great effort, human nature calls for a reprieve, and patting on the back. But “der mentsh trakht un Gott lakht,” and instead of a pat on the back, there’s a potch on the thigh and a not-so-subtle reminder that the war is far from over. There are many battles to be fought in the intrigue and mystic of life. Just when you believe things are returning to “normal,” there appear on the horizon more formidable foes to be vanquished. What’s in store for us upon fighting the good fight, after 120 years?

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, in the first stanza of her poem read at the Reunion of the Society of the Grand Army of the Tennessee, at Madison, Wisconsin, July 4th, 1872, wrote:

After the battles are over,
And the war drums cease to beat,
And no more is heard on the hillside
The sound of hurrying feet,
Full many a noble action,
That was done in the days of strife,
By the soldier is half forgotten,
In the peaceful walks of life.

Parshat Vayishlach

Torah Reading for Week of November 25-December 1, 2012


“The Proof is in the ….. Stew”

By Dov Gottesfeld, Fifth Year Rabbinic Student

The Torah portion “Vayishlach” provides quite a few crucial occurrences that became unsettling moments in the history of the Jewish people. The examples abound. Among them, the name change of Jacob to Israel; the brutal killing of all the male inhabitants by Dina’s brothers, Shimon and Levy; the death of Rachel after giving birth to Benjamin; and how Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son, lost his birthright.

However, what caught my attention was a simple, ordinary act that Jacob initiated, which shed light not only on his relationship with his brother Esau and his parents, Isaac and Rebecca, but also on his way of thinking as a leader. That way of thinking has been plaguing humans from ancient times to the present.

When the messengers that Jacob had sent to his brother Esau returned with the bad news: “Esau was coming to meet him, and there are four hundred men with him” (Gen 32:7), “Jacob selected from what was at hand these presents for his brother Esau…” (Gen 32:14). “For he reasoned, ‘If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor’.” (Gen 32:21) Jacob hoped that the giving of gifts would cause Esau to get instant gratification which, in turn, would make things turn in Jacob’s favor.  He had done the same twenty years earlier when he cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright by selling him a bowl of red lentil stew and a slice of bread.

Had Jacob already forgotten how upset he was at Lavan, his father-in-law, who tricked him– by giving him his daughter Leah instead of Rachel, whom Jacob thought he had married that evening?  Why did Lavan succeed? Because he acted upon Jacob’s manly desire to have a woman at his side in order to get instant gratification. That is why Jacob did not bother to check the identity of the girl wearing the wedding dress, whom Lavan ushered into his dark tent. In order to get Rachel, Jacob was forced to work seven more years for his father-in-law.

Esau was no different than Jacob; he did not look into, and beyond, the pot of red lentil stew that Jacob offered him in return for his birthright. Instant gratification made them both victims of their needs and desires.

There are many more stories throughout the bible in which people from all walks of life and social status succumbed to their desires. They willingly sold — either truthfully or deceivingly — not only their dear possessions, but also their honors and respect “For naught but provender”.

Unfortunately, humanity, has yet to learn its lesson. People still sell their precious possessions, family life, honor, social and professional positions, status and integrity for instant gratifications, whether through drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, bribery, etc. Sadly, there are also an abundance of people who are ready and willing to exploit and abuse them for their own gratifications. The world keeps revolving. We eat ourselves, drug ourselves and starve ourselves… to death, for that short period of instant gratification that will vanish in no time, only to return with greater intensity, again and again and again.

To delay and, hopefully, avoid that destructive need and get what one truly and honestly needs out of life – not what s/he wants – one must look closer into that steamy bowl of stew and, in doing so, find the proof.