Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
This week Jacob literally finds himself between a rock and hard place. After stealing the Blessing of Succession from Esau by tricking their father Isaac, Jacob flees the camp for his life, hoping for safety and security with his Uncle Laban. That night he dreams of angels climbing up and down a ladder to heaven. God speaks to Jacob in the dream, and reaffirms the covenantal promise first made to Abraham. Not only that, but God also says: “Behold, I am with you, and will protect you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done as I have spoken to you.” [Gen. 28:15]
Jacob awoke from his dream in amazement and said, “Surely God is in the place, and I did not know.” [Gen. 28:16]
Entire books have been written about this passage, and one of my favorites is by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. In one chapter, Kushner highlights a strange grammatical detail in Jacob’s statement of awe. In referring to himself as “I” Jacob uses the Hebrew word “anochi.” In Hebrew there are several ways one can say “I,” but the word “anochi” is the most formal iteration, and is generally reserved for people of great import, or more often, just for God.
Why does Jacob refer to himself as “anochi” in this moment? One possibility is that up until now, everything Jacob has done as been focused on his own self-interests. What do we know about him so far? During childbirth, he grabbed his twin brother Esau’s heel as if he was somehow trying to emerge from their mother first to claim the birthright of succession. Some years later, he takes advantage of Esau, trading a bowl of lentils to his hungry brother in exchange for that very birthright. Then, as their blind father ailed, he “pulled the wool” right over Isaac’s eyes, tricking him into giving the Blessing of Succession to Jacob instead of Esau. Now, to be fair, this was not Jacob’s idea, but his mother Rebekah’s plan. Yet, Jacob’s only question when Rebekah suggested it was to ask what would happen if he got caught. Even more, he was immediately satisfied with her answer: that she would take the blame and pay the penalty. The rabbis teach that when we are full of ourselves, there is no room for anyone else. Jacob saw only himself, had empathy only for himself.
Then, at the ebb tide of the spirit, after his first night alone in the wilderness, a new day began. In a moment of powerful self-awareness, Jacob “awoke” and recognized that he had been blinded by his arrogance.
“Anochi” is the Jacob that was. We need the next two Hebrew words to understand what Jacob was becoming: “lo yadaati.” The literal translation of “lo yadaati” is: “[I] did not know.” In the Hebrew, the pronoun “I” is included not as a separate word, but rather as a mere suffix of verb conjugation. It is possible to read the three Hebrew words “Anochi lo yadaati” as one phrase: “I did not know.” However, the words “lo yadaati” commonly stand on their own with the same meaning. Why then do we need this strange and somewhat clunky three-word formulation?
Rabbi Kushner brings a sensitive interpretation from Menachem Mendl of Kotzk to offer a beautiful alternative translation: “God was in the place and I … i did not know.” So, moved was Rabbi Kushner by this nuanced line, that he made it the title of his book – which, by the way, I heartily recommend. The capital “I” is the “I” of arrogance. The lower case “i" is the “i" of humility.
As a child, Jacob was indeed a heel. As an adult, Jacob was forced to confront his arrogance and learn humility, and in a dark and vulnerable hour, discovered that he was never truly alone.
Neither are we.
Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Here we go again! In this week’s parasha famine strikes the land, as it did in the time of Abraham, and Isaac brings his household to Abimelech, king of the Philisitines, for safety. The only problem is that, being a stranger, Isaac is afraid – especially because Rebekah was so beautiful. Thinking that someone might kill him to get Rebekah, he lied about their relationship and told everyone that she was his sister instead of his wife – just as his father Abraham had done when he and Sarah sought refuge in Egypt and then again with Abimelech.
As with Abraham’s story, the danger to Isaac seems exaggerated in his own imagination. When Pharoah and Abimelech each found out the truth that Sarah and Abraham were married, they became angry at Abraham, and made sure to respect the marriage. They did not ever threaten his safety. Similarly, when Abimelech learns that Rebekah and Isaac are married he is angry at Isaac for lying, and guarantees both Isaac’s and Rebekah’s safety.
It seems to me that, in the weeks following the killings in Pittsburgh, that we can learn something from our forebears. Should we look to our security? Absolutely, and with a careful and reasoned approach. However, we should never allow our fears prevent us from being true to who we are, or from living with integrity and even pride. Over the centuries and millennia, we have learned some difficult lessons, and as a people, have overcome the darkest of tragedies. It is not fear that carried us through, but rather our strength, our values, and our resiliency.
Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
[This commentary was written before the tragic attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue where 11 Jews were killed this past Shabbat. I am leaving it unchanged. Although the pain and sorrow are still raw for many of us, these words may resonate now more than ever as we begin to move through our grief towards healing.]
It seems ironic that chayei Sara, literally “the life of Sarah” is really about her death: “And Sarah’s life was a hundred and twenty-seven years, [these were] the years of Sarah’s life. And Sara died in Kiriat-Arba, which is Hebron in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize and to bewail her.” [Gen. 23:1-2]
It seems ironic, but perhaps the point is not that she died, but that she lived.
The medieval rabbinic commentator Rashi shared a tradition which ascribed meaning to Sarah’s age when she died: that throughout her life she had the wisdom of a one-hundred-year-old, the beauty of a twenty-year-old, and the vitality of a seven-year-old. For this reason, her age was mentioned before her death.
We don’t know what Abraham said, but this is the first mention of a eulogy in the Torah – a tribute to how one lived. Before Abraham can negotiate a burial cave for Sarah, he feels compelled to speak of Sarah’s life.
We Jews have developed a highly structured and emotionally healthy approach to mourning, which may very well have its roots in these two verses. Consider, for example, the mourner’s kaddish – the preeminent Jewish spiritual expression in our times of grief. While the function of the kaddish has been tied to safeguarding the afterlife of the departed, the words themselves offer a different perspective. The kaddish, written mostly in Aramaic (the vernacular of the time) rather than Hebrew, does not mention mourning, death, sorrow, anger, loneliness or any of the feelings we might associate with the passing of a loved one. In fact, it contains a difficult-to-translate doxology, magnifying the supremacy and holiness of the Divine.
It seems to me that the mourner’s kaddish is actually a “thank you” prayer – not for taking our loved ones from us, but for God’s incredible generosity in sharing them with us in the first place. The kaddish teaches us to treasure each moment we have, and each memory that remains, as a precious gift from heaven – for that is true value of our lives.
Chayei Sara may record Sarah’s death, but it is really about life.
Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
In last week’s parasha Abram left the only life he had ever known behind when God called, and in so doing, became the world’s first Jew. This week, God commands Lot and his family to flee the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, specifically telling them not to stop along the way and not to look back lest they be consumed as well.
“And his wife looked back and she became a pillar of salt.” [Gen. 19:26]
There is an old legend which claims that a stone formation near the Dead Sea is actually Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, and that the Dead Sea is all that remains of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Torah neither proves or disproves this legend, but the next few verses suggest that the meaning is about more than geology:
“And Abraham hastened early in the morning to the place where he had stood in the presence of the Lord. And he looked out over Sodom and Gomorrah and over all the land of the plain, and he saw and, look, smoke was rising like the smoke from a kiln.” [Gen. 19:27-28]
Lot’s wife looked back and turned to salt. Abraham looked out and remained safe. They both saw the same destruction. Perhaps Abraham was safe because he was farther away. But was the distance merely physical or something more?
Lot’s wife did not turn into stone, but into salt – a symbol of bitterness. Looking back she mourned what was, preferring the known past – evil as it was – over an unknown future. Change, especially when it is thrust upon us, can seem terrifying and overwhelming. Yet, if there is one constant in the world, it is change. Lot’s wife wanted to stay in the past, and as a result, she became filled with so much bitterness that she was transformed into a “pillar of salt.” For her, there was no future.
Abraham, however, did not look back. He looked “out.” He was not fleeing, but moving forward.
Jewish spirituality, first and foremost, is a journey. Not that, like Abraham, we should leave everything behind. He already did that for us. Instead, we need to honor, respect, and learn from our past, even as we continue to look forward.
Abraham was open to the challenges and possibilities of a changing world. Lot’s wife was mired in the world as it had been. As a descendent of Abraham, it is strange indeed for me whenever I visit the Dead Sea to think about this story and wonder: what if … ?
Genesis 12:1 – 17:2
“And the Lord said to Abram: Lech lecha, go you forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation …” [Gen. 12:1-2]
Abram followed God’s command, and began a journey which eventually led to his becoming the father not only of Judaism, but of all three monotheistic traditions. I have often wondered what it would take for a 75 year old man to leave everything he knew behind him for a mysterious future. In a world which was not as fluid and mobile as today, Abram had to leave almost everything and everyone he knew: his homeland, his clan, his physical home. At any age, these are the environmental factors which provide us with safety, security and comfort. Where does a man find a reservoir of trust deep enough to take such a risk at the age of 75?
I think that I have struggled with this question because I am 21st Century American Jew. When we consider the long history of our people, only a very few generations have enjoyed the comfort and privilege which my generation takes for granted. We feel so comfortable, so secure, that we cannot imagine giving everything up for the unknown.
Yet, our fortune is also our weakness. Abram did not enjoy our privilege, he may have felt far more vulnerable than we. We certainly know that he did not have any children, and therefore, uncertain hopes for the future. Perhaps Abram was ready to hear God in ways we are not. Perhaps our comfort is like a drug, dulling our senses and our motivation to change and grow.
Lech Lecha is a spiritual example of what personal trainers call the instability principle – the idea that we grow stronger when we introduce instability into our workout routines, forcing our core muscles to compensate. In requiring Abram to leave all that was familiar in his environment behind, God created spiritual instability – which was absolutely necessary if Abram were to develop the spiritual strength necessary to change the world.
Today, we have more physical luxury than any generation in the history of our planet: through supermarkets we have access to a wide range of food beyond the reach even of monarchs only a few generations ago; our homes are heated and most have air conditioning; we travel in ease by land, sea and air; we have the world at our fingertips through the internet. Yet, with all of this, we are also more and more spiritually disconnected, and we are losing our moral compasses. We live in echo-chambers where we only hear opinions we agree with, and we dehumanize those with whom we disagree. We are polarized, outraged, afraid – and hanging on to everything that seems safe and familiar.
Those who stayed in Abram’s homeland were left behind, and each year with this week’s parasha, God calls again: lech lecha. Perhaps we could all do with a little more spiritual instability, and the will to use it for a higher purpose.
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
As introductions go, Noah’s was rather impressive. At the opening of this weeks parasha he is described as a “righteous man in his generation …[who] walked with God.” [Gen. 6:9] The rabbis have a great deal of praise for Noah, or rather, some do and some do not. The great medieval commentator Rashi describes the debate. He notes that some rabbis teach that Noah was righteous even in his generation; that if he had lived in a more righteous generation then he would have been even more righteous because of his innate goodness. However, Rashi also directs our attention the Talmud, which teaches that Noah was only righteous in comparison with the evil people of his own generation. Had he lived in the time of Abraham, he would have been nobody special (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 108a).
This may seem a little harsh, but the Talmudic rabbis are not creating this idea from thin air. They ask us to compare Noah with Abraham. Of Abraham, the Torah says that he was righteous, but does not add the phrase “in his generation.” The Talmudic rabbis consider that a purposeful omission: Abraham’s righteousness would stand out in any generation, whereas Noah’s only stood out in relation to his own generation. The rabbis also look to another detail in the text. According to the text, Abraham did not walk with God like Noah, but instead, walked before God [Gen. 17:1 and 24:40]. What is the difference? Noah needed extra support from God for his righteousness, like a toddler needing to hold his parent’s hand for support. Abraham had enough strength to walk on his own in righteousness, like an older child walking in front of his parent.
While this may seem like an academic argument, the difference can clearly be seen in their actions. When God approaches Noah, describing the imminent destruction of the world, Noah does exactly what God commands: he builds an ark. The rabbis consider that a righteous act indeed, not to mention incredibly difficult to execute. But, when God told Abraham about the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham tries to talk God out of it. What courage! He directly challenged God, asking if the innocent should die with the guilty, and eventually talks God down to the point where if ten innocents could be found, then the entire city would be spared. Amazingly, God does not punish Abraham for insolence but instead agrees with Abraham’s arguments.
Here we arrive at one of the most fundamental truths of our tradition: blind faith is not true righteousness. True righteousness means living with such a commitment to the values and teachings of Torah that we are willing to challenge any authority, even God, when they seem contrary to what we know to be right.
If Noah had challenged God the way Abraham did, would there still have been a flood? We will never know. However, in today’s world, which in some ways seems just as filled with violence and hate as in Noah’s day, we have a choice. Who will we choose to emulate, Noah or Abraham?
Genesis 1:1 – 6:
There is more to Torah than meets the eye! By design, the Torah is written in such a way that it cannot be understood by simply reading it as a book. It requires us to look more deeply, to question and challenge both the text and ourselves as we seek its deeper wisdom and meaning. The rabbis teach that every letter of every word has a purpose, that even the tiniest detail can change our understanding of the Divine message.
Take for example the very first word in the Torah, bereshit:
Usually, we translate this word as “In the beginning,” but the truth is we are not sure of the precise meaning of the word. Our problem is that the very first word in the Torah is a grammatical oddity – which is to say, that from the very beginning the text is challenging our basic assumptions and even the structure of language.
Every word in Hebrew has a basic two or three root structure upon which it is built, and every word that shares a root, shares some sort of connected meaning. For example, in modern Hebrew the words “betach” (definitely), “bitachon” (security) and “bituach” (insurance) all share the three-letter root: bet-taf-chet. They are all related to each other in meaning. The word ‘definitely’ offers a sense of guarantee, which is also the idea behind both security and insurance. In English, there are no root connections between these three words, but this is part of the unique character of the Hebrew language.
The root structure of bereshit, however, is a challenge – and without knowing the root, how can we understand the word? And how can we understand Torah if we can’t even get past the first word? Without getting too far into the intricacies of biblical grammar, most people consider the root to be reish-aleph-shin, which means “head” or “beginning.” The letter bet before the root, in this case would mean “in” – hence, “in the beginning.”
The problem is the last two letters. They don’t make sense with this structure, yet according to the rabbis – every letter in the Torah has a purpose.
I have a theory, which is to say, a question. What if there is more than one root in bereshit? What if the word is so unique and rich with meaning that it transcends the normal limitations of human language?
To be clear, adding anything else to the mix violates the basic structure of spoken Hebrew, but let’s just take a quick look. The first three letters bereshit are the exact same spelling as the second word in the Torah: barah (bet-reish-aleph). The verb barah means “created” – but that particular verb can only be used when God creates. We use a totally different word for human creation. It is impossible to look at the Torah scroll and not see the repetition:
So now it seems that the word contains the meaning of both “beginning” and “divine creation.” But, wait there is more. A third complete word is buried within bereshit: eish, which means “fire.”
Was fire involved with creation? There is no direct mention in Torah, but it makes me wonder about the Big Bang. What if this is an oblique nod to the methods of Divine creativity?
In the end, we are left with more questions than answers, but perhaps that is the point. After all, we are just at the beginning, and there is more to Torah than meets the eye.
Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
“Will You really wipe out the innocent with the guilty?” [Gen. 18:23]
In Vayera we find Abraham at his very best, risking his life by challenging God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In Abraham’s world, authority was absolute. No king would ever allow someone to challenge their decision, yet over the next several verses Abraham dares to do that not merely with a king, but with the Almighty! Make no mistake, this was a dangerous business. Abraham risked his life when he asked God to spare the cities if fifty innocent people could be found in their midst. Incredibly, God agreed, yet Abraham did not stop there. He continued to challenge God, whittling away at the number until he eventually negotiated it down to ten. Not only did Abraham escape punishment for his temerity, but God agreed at every step of the way! Unfortunately, however, for Sodom and Gomorrah not even ten innocent people could be found.
The Abraham of this story, willing to challenge even the Divine to protect life and God’s reputation in the world, is my hero.
A few chapters later Vayera shows us another Abraham. One who is willing to sacrifice his own son at God’s command. How do we reconcile the Abraham who challenges God directly to save strangers from the Divine decree with the Abraham who agrees to kill his own son?
This is the question that the Midrash HaGadol tries to answer. According to tradition, God tested Abraham ten times, with the final and greatest test being God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. The sages teach that Abraham passed all ten tests with flying colors. God’s decision to destroy the cities was one of these tests, and Abraham rose to the occasion. However, according to Midrash HaGadol he only partially passed. Abraham should not have stopped at ten; God would have spared the cities for one innocent person.
For this reason, says the midrash, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac: to teach him the value of even one human life.
May this be a lesson for us all.
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Part of the genius of Torah is that it does not start with Judaism or even Jews, but with humanity. Neither Adam nor Eve were Jewish, nor were Cain or Abel. The Jewish narrative does not begin until (in next week’s parasha) God calls upon Abram to leave his family and his land to a place that God will show him. Noach is not about the Jewish people, it is about all people.
Noah’s saga ends with the divine promise never to destroy creation again, and moves on to the shortest story in all of Torah: eleven whole verses dedicated to the Tower of Babel. The really short version is this: all of the people of the world lived together, and spoke the same language, and decided to build a tower up to the heavens. God does not like the idea, and confuses their speech by introducing different languages so that they could no longer understand each other. Then God scatters them across the world.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva in the late 19th Century taught that the Tower of Babel was the first totalitarianism. Why? Just look at the first verse of the story: “The entire earth had one language, and spoke the same words.” [Gen. 11:1] This is the ultimate expression of human uniformity. If everyone speaks not only the same language but the same words then there is no individualism, no creativity, no growth, no diversity. We are all the exactly the same, and never change.
Torah, beginning with the Babel story, repudiates the very concept of uniformity or universalism as an ideal. God responds to the people of Babel, by forcing diversity upon them, and therefore, upon us. Then, in next week’s parasha, God singles out Abram and says, in effect, be different. This is a big part of what it means to be Jewish. The rest of Torah goes on to differentiate Israel from among the peoples; it defines our particular relationship with God and assigns us our own special set of divinely ordained obligations – 613 of them to be precise.
The theological and practical ramifications of this are breathtaking. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Judaism has a structural peculiarity so perplexing and profound that though its two daughter monotheisms, Christianity and Islam, took much else from it, they did not adopt this: it is a particularlist monotheism. It believes in One God but not in one exclusive path to salvation.”
In other words, being chosen in this way does not mean we are better than anyone else, or that God favors Jews over the nations. Rather, the message is one that values diversity. God wants us to be different because diversity in an of itself is good.
What an extraordinary message for us today.
 Sacks, Jonathan. The Dignity of Difference. London: Continuum Books, 2002, p. 52.
Deuteronomy 29:9 –31:30
“You stand here today, all of you, before the Lord your God …” [Deut. 29:9]
We read these words at the beginning of this week’s parasha, and then again on Yom Kippur – our holiest of holy days. While we believe that God is always present, at this time of year, we try to become more aware, and we attempt to take stock of how we are living our lives. Are we proud of who we have been? Are there things we would like to change? Asking ourselves these questions while standing in the presence of the Divine helps us to be more honest with ourselves – for nothing is hidden from God.
… but we can always use a little extra help.
A friend and colleague of mine introduced me to a wonderful tool that I have used now for several years. Do You 10Q is a free website that is designed to help us make the most of this opportunity to consciously stand before God. It is run by Reboot – a cutting edge example of Jewish spiritual entrepreneurialism.
Here is how it works:
First you will need to register. Then, starting on September 20th, a 10Q question will land in your inbox with a link. When you click on the link you will be taken to a secure site where you can record and store your answer. Nobody but you will have access to your answers. Each day, for ten days, you will receive another question with another link. You will then have a day or two after Yom Kippur to reflect on your answers and decide whether you want to keep them private, or share them either anonymously or attributed with the 10Q staff and with other 10Qers.
Once you are ready, you can then hit the “magic button” – which will lock your vault until next year, when your answers from the previous year will “magically” reappear in your inbox.
Each year, when I receive my answers from the previous year, I gain a fascinating perspective on how far I have come, where I have stumbled, and what I want to focus on for this upcoming year.
I strongly recommend Do You 10Q for your consideration, and in advance wish you a Shana Tovah u’Metukah, a sweet, healthy and happy New Year.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras