Lessons on life- from the dead: Yom Kippur 5776

At shul this Rosh Hashanah I felt like an imposter. As tears streamed down my cheeks during the Chazan’s repetition I kept thinking that anyone who glanced over at me in those moments would believe I was having a profoundly religious experience, when really I was having a profoundly sad experience. I struggled to turn that pain into a conversation with God, but I couldn’t get past, “Why them… Why God… Please no more.”

This year has not been easy. My schedule is packed with studying and teaching, plus translating “on the side.” I’ve never been a high energy person, I just pretend to be. But what ends up happening is after a day full of studying and teaching, translating and preparing, I come home and collapse. So while my professional life is blossoming, and I love every moment of it, every other aspect of my life has shrunk. I canceled and rescheduled on friends so often I stopped making plans. I see my family, and my adorable nieces and nephews, way too little. I don’t call people that often because at the end of the day I just don’t feel like talking anymore. And after I stopped taking care of my friends and family, I eventually cut down on taking care of myself. I stopped investing in my dating life, which is no way to find a life partner. I stopped eating balanced meals and walked less, opting for buses and cabs to preserve my scarce time and energy.

One might say I stopped living.

But I won’t say that. Because there are different types of living. And while I was no longer seizing the opportunities that life afforded me, I am still very much alive.

Which brings me to the profound sadness I felt on Rosh Hashanah. That sadness is for those who are no longer alive. You have no idea how long it took me to type those words. It’s too painful to think, to believe, let alone write. I know that other people have experienced losses far more profound than mine, and I have friends and loved ones who were far closer to these people, but while that may give me perspective it does not lessen my pain. This knowledge has actually prevented me from writing about these losses, but I am feeling stuck, talking hasn’t helped,and the only ways I can really work through my thoughts and feelings are writing and teaching, and I’m not sure my students want to hear a shiur about dead people I miss. So writing it is.

A few months ago I lost two people I cared for. My friend Batsheva. My best-friend’s-father Sam.

Hopefully you all have friends. Hopefully you don’t know what it’s like to lose one.

Hopefully you also have a best-friend’s-father, but you probably don’t. I don’t mean that you have a best friend and your best friend has a father. I’m talking about the title “best-friend’s-father.” Maybe you understand if you’ve been friends with the same person for almost 30 years, spent hours of your life sharing meals with their family, playing games, going on outings, and even living in their house for weeks on end… no, you probably still don’t know, unless your best-friend’s-father happened to be Sam also.

This post is not meant to be a eulogy. But if you weren’t one of the lucky people to know him I’ll try to give you an idea of the man. He was extraordinarily affable. He was smart and kind, genuinely interested in everyone and everything. As a kid I never knew what to call him, because I both revered him and loved him I didn’t know if I should call him by his first or last name. I really just wanted a word for father-figure-#2. But it didn’t matter what I did or did not call him, he was always there- for his family, for his friends, and for his family’s friends (which meant me). He was as generous with his time as he was with his heart, and yet he was always doing something- reading a book, going out with his wife, spending time with family or friends, learning something new, doing a crossword, watching sports, playing sports with friends, playing sports with his kids (and kids’ friends), playing guitar, playing games with his kids…

He played hard, he also worked hard. He was a lawyer who always put his family before his career. He had his priorities in order. While most of us are still trying to figure out what’s important in this life and how to balance our time Sam just knew what should be done and he made it happen. As a kid it almost looked effortless, as an adult I am sure it was not.

I was told that at his funeral the Rabbi spoke about what the Torah means when it promises arichut yamim, lengthy days, as a reward for certain mitzvot. While the prevalent understanding is arichut yamim means longevity, one could also understand the promise not as quantity, but as quality. No matter how many days one is allotted in this world, their days should be long, full. Sam lived a full life. It was too short. But he lived more in those years than other people could in three lifetimes. Whatever he was doing he was in that moment- present and attentive-and he enjoyed it. He was full of life. And he filled the lives of those around him.

For those of you who knew Batsheva I’m sure this last section in particular resonated. Batsheva’s life was also too short. Yet it was full- with friends, family, kindness, and adventure. She filled her moments and the moments of those around her. Batsheva had an infectious smile that made you want to be around her. And when you were around her you’d see she was smart, fun, funny, optimistic, giving, creative, and more- and you never wanted to leave. Her goodness and positivity would rub off on you. And though I didn’t see her often, when I did it tended to be on some outing or another, psyching everyone up with her energy, enthusiasm, and probably some baked goods.

These people were a part of my life. Moreover these people were a part of our world, forces of life and light that made this world a more vibrant and kinder place to be. The impact of their life and their love is still with us, still with me. But so much of them is missing. And it hurts.

So when I read the words of u’netana tokef, and when I get to the point where God decides who will live and who will die- “mi bkitzo umi lo bkitzo,” “who in their time and who not in their time-” I get so sad and angry and confused. As I try to pray for my own life and the lives of my family, friends, and community, and I also get so angry at God for taking these people away before their time.

These negative feelings are too strong to ignore, but in themselves they are not constructive. So while I know I must confront the pain, I try to turn the intensity of my feelings to God. I try to work it into the conversation. I try to thank God for introducing these people into my life instead of being angry at God for taking them away. Instead of allowing the sadness I feel at their passing to drain me, I try to let the joy I feel from my time with them comfort me and inspire me.

Sam. Batsheva. Thank you for everything you gave me and everything you taught me. I will try to fill the lives of those around me, like you.  I will try to fill my days, like you filled yours. On this Yom Kippur, and every day after, I will pray for arichut yamim and I will work to make it happen.

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Pesach 5775: Tell all the stories

It seems to me that the editors of the Hagaddah were either really bad at their job or really good at it.

The Mishnah in Pesachim (10:4) tells us we that to tell the story of the redemption from Egypt we must begin with gnut, disgrace, and end with shevach, praise.

In the gemara Shmuel tells us this means we begin telling our story with “Avadim Hayinu,” “We were slaves.” (T.B. Pesachim 116a; Dvarim 6:21)

Rav tells us to begin with “Mitchila,” “In the beginning your fathers were idol worshippers.” (Yehoshua 24: 2)

The Mishnah then continues and tells us we are doresh (expound) from “Arami oved avi,” “My father was a wandering Aramean” until the end of the section. (Devarim 26, 5-8)

Modern scholars disagree as to the reason each of these sections were chosen and the underlying idea each one is meant to convey.  They also disagree as to whether the continuation of the mishnah constitutes another explanation as to the “disgrace” and “praise” that bookends our story, or whether it is the next step. I think they’ve missed the point.

There’s always room for one more

All this focus on disagreement is the exact opposite of what we have in the hagaddah; the editors of the hagaddah decided to include everything. The editors didn’t focus on the dispute; instead they made room for everyone at the seder table.

The Hagaddah has evolved over the generations and more and more has been included. Raban Gamliel wanted us to talk about the “props” we use to tell the story- Pesach, matzah, and maror- so we do. Hillel liked to eat his korban Pesach like a shwarma- we do that too. There’s a disagreement as to how bright the light of the redemption was- Ben Zoma learned that we mention the exodus even in the darkness of night while the chachamim (sages) thought we would still mention it after the final redemption- let’s put both those opinions in there too. The Talmud says “In every generation a person is obligated to see (lirot) themselves as if they left Egypt,” while Rambam says “to show” (liharot)- so many hagaddot include both. Have a song about a goat? How about something that involves counting? Should we put in a poem about God saving us at midnight or one about miracles on Pesach? Let’s just put it all in.

It’s actually pretty hard to find things that were excluded from the hagaddah. So like I said, either the editors were really bad at their job, or they did this on purpose. Nothing seems to have been left on the editing floor; instead we have a cacophony of stories and voices expertly woven together.

The Hagaddah as a “Big Tent”

Once I realized this I started trying to understand why.

I’d love to hear what you’ve come up with. This is what I came up with.

Pesach is the beginning. In the beginning all the voices need to be heard. As Rav Kook often points out, every voice has an element of truth. If we start excluding people or opinions because we already have our own opinion or our story has already been written then we will never allow ourselves to hear other truths. It is only when we find the element of truth in every person and in every person and put them all together that we can see the big picture and achieve true revelation.

עולם תוהו עומד הוא לפנינו, כל זמן שאין אנחנו מגיעים לידי התיקון העליון של אחדותם של כל זרמי החיים וכל הנטיות השונות אשר להם. כל זמן שכל אחד מתנשא לומר, אני אמלך ואני ואפסי עוד, אין שלום בעצמנו, ואין שם ד’ מופיע עלינו, שמא גופיה דאקריה שלום, אשר אור האמת רק ממנו ועל ידו מופיע. כל עמל החיים, ביחוד העמל הרוחני של כל המחשבה, מוכרח להיות פונה רק כדי לגלות את אור השלום הכללי העליון, היוצא לא מתוך דחיה של איזה כח, של איזה רעיון, של איזה זרם, של איזה נטיה, אלא מתוך הכנסתו של כל אחד מאלה לתוך הים הגדול של אור אין סוף, ששם הכל מתאחד, הכל מתעלה, הכל מתרומם, והכל מתקדש. – אורות הקודש חלק ג

Of course not every opinion is all truth. Once we hear all the voices we can sort through them, pick out the sweet, nourishing fruit and discard the excess peal. We choose which ideas are central and which are peripheral. We find the right time and the right place for each.

But we can never do this if we don’t start out giving everyone a seat at the table. As we begin the seder: “All who are hungry should come and eat.” “כל דכפין ייתי וייכול”

And so we tell all the stories. Shmuel’s story about physical bondage and freedom. Rav’s story about spiritual redemption, and the stam mishnah’s story about homelessness and homecoming. Because all of these things are part of our story, and we can only get a complete picture when we put it all together.

Finding a place for my story

There is also room for our own redemption stories. People have also started adding their own “props” – on orange on the seder plate for women’s inclusion, or the inclusion of other people who feel disenfranchised from the Jewish community (such as the LGBTQ community). Some may bemoan the break from tradition. Others may applaud the attempt to make the seder more relevant. Once again, I think we’re missing the point.

There is truth in the desire to add something of ourselves and our story to the seder. Judaism has flourished over the generations because it remains relevant to us, because in every generation people have been able to see themselves as if they left Egypt. They are able to infuse the symbols of the seder with new layers of meaning, connect the redemption thousands of years ago to their own tale of redemption, and tell their own version of the story.

People are telling their stories. We should add in our own. And we should listen to the others. We need to open ourselves up to hear every story. For in the end it is only when we weave together each individual’s story of redemption that we can tell the story of the redemption of the All the People of Israel, Klal Yisrael.

Yom Kippur 5775: Lost in ourselves

The past two years my Erev Yom Kippur blog posts have focused on finding oneself. And as I sit down to write this post I realize that this is the topic I want to focus on once again. I am not trying to be redundant. I believe I have something to new to add. But I realize that first I should probably explain why, while other people are talking about prayer and good deeds and forgiveness, I focus on the Westernized cliche of “finding oneself.”

I do so because I believe that God made us all unique to fulfill a purpose, and the best way we can serve God and give to the world is to find that purpose and dedicate ourselves to its fulfillment. I believe that God created us good and true and we naturally wish to be good and true; it is only when we lose sight of ourselves and our true nature that we do wrong. I believe that losing oneself is just as much a source of sin as losing God, and we can’t truly find one without the other. I was created in the image of God. If I find the image I can find God; if I find God I can find the image. And because I am a self-centered person I think it is easier to me find God by way of myself than it is for me to find myself by way of God.

Yom Kippur is the time we are told to return- return to ourselves. We can only return if we know the way. The services of Yom Kippur can be seen as a guidebook to help us on our journey. They are designed to help us find God and find ourselves. So now I will focus on one part of that service- the Book of Jonah read for the haftara of the mincha  prayer, kicking off afternoon services.

“To run away… from before God”

A quick recap of Jonah. Jonah is a prophet. God send Jonah on a mission- to call out to the people of Ninveh because God has seen their evil. The prophet’s job in cases like this is to tell the people to return to God, possibly threaten some evil if they do not. Jonah does not want to fulfill his mission and so he runs away “from before God” and boards a ship heading in the opposite direction. Jonah runs away from his mission, his purpose in life. And God chases after him. He sends him a storm and sailors, then a fish. Then the people of Ninveh. Then a gourd plant, a wind, and a worm. God sends Jonah messages directly and indirectly, trying to get him to learn his lesson and get him back on track.

This may not be the way you have traditionally learned Jonah, but trust me, it’s the main point of the story. It’s so obvious that the Vilna Gaon actually understands the entire book as allegory- Jonah represents the human soul as it struggles in this world to fulfill its spiritual mission.

A man of truth

I have long understood Jonah as a struggle between man and God. Jonah is a man with his own truth- he is the son of Amitai–  the root in Hebrew means truth. Jonah’s truth is a vision of how the world should work. And he sticks to his truth- even when expressly told by God not to.

Jonah tells us why he ran away in Chapter 4, “Because I knew that you were a God of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and regrets evil.” Yes, Jonah runs away from God because God is too nice. Wait, what?

See, Jonah here quotes from the famous attributes of God, the ones we will read over and over again on Yom Kippur, the ones first said by Moses to get God to forgive the Children of Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf. But if you compare Jonah’s list of attributes to Moses’ (Shmot 34, 6-7) Jonah has one glaring omission- Truth. Jonah does not believe that God has truth. Because truth is justice. Truth is you do something bad, something bad happens to you. You do something good, something good happens to you. You do nothing, nothing happens.

In a world of truth there is no room for teshuva, for repentance- without any consequences. This option clouds the truth. It makes it unclear who does right and who does wrong. Jonah laments this world, a world of lies. A world where good things happen to bad people, so its unclear that they are bad people. If God would just punish the evildoers and reward the good guys then everyone would know the truth and the world would run properly, since only the good guys would be left. That’s the way Jonah wants the world to run. And he has a point.

“Should I not have compassion?”

The problem is that God has run the world like that in the past. He wiped out all the sinners in a flood, and He decided never to do it again. Judy Klitsner, in her book “Subversive Sequels in the Bible,” points out the many linguistic and thematic similarities between the story of the flood and the story of Jonah. These similarities also highlight differences. One of the main differences is that God now sends a prophet to give the people a chance to change before utterly wiping them out.

Why? Because all of God’s creatures are important to him. Yes, we are mostly clueless, as God says, “Should I not have compassion on Ninveh the great city which has within over 120,000 people who do not know to choose between their right and left and many animals.” Yes- people and animals- because sometimes people are almost as clueless as animals. And yet all of them have a purpose and all benefit from God’s compassion.

Growing up my pediatrician (a really great person) had a sign on the door of his office that had a picture of a grumpy kid and said something like “I know I’m something because God don’t make no garbage.” That’s what God is trying to explain to Jonah. It’s not so simple to give up on One’s creations.

Obviously this in itself is a great message for Yom Kippur. The idea that we are all important to God. The idea that God is rooting for us to find the right path. The idea that God is helping us to find the right path.

“Why are you sleeping?”

But Jonah refuses to see these things. He is blinded by his ideology. Lost in himself. This year I finally started to pay attention to the ways that God tries to get Jonah to see beyond himself.

When Jonah first runs away he “goes down” onto a boat.

“God cast a great wind to the sea and there was a great storm in the sea and the ship intended to break. And the sailors feared and each man called out to his god, and they cast the vessels that were on the ship into the sea to lighten their load; and Jonah went down to the depths of the ship and lay down and fell asleep.” (1, 4-5)

So while the sailors are doing everything physically and spiritually possible to save themselves, Jonah shuts his eyes to reality and escapes. They are in an existential crisis. He is calm. He holds strong to his truth. He knows he sinned and he has faith he will be punished. He is ready to die. “Raise me and cast me into the sea and the sea will quiet on you for I know that  it is because of me this great storm is upon you.” (1, 12)

We could excuse Jonah if the storm only affected him. But it doesn’t; no man is an island. Even if he believes that God will not punish the righteous with the wicked he should FEEL SOMETHING for the people on the ship who are terrified. But he does not.

So first God tries to teach Jonah empathy and compassion through the people on the ship. Innocent people who are put into a life threatening position because Jonah chose their ship. Righteous people who the second they hear about monotheism from Jonah immediately fear God. Kind people who try to save Jonah’s life and row back to shore even as Jonah himself insists on dying. The sailors on the ship have compassion for Jonah, a sinner who put their lives in danger, while Jonah has no compassion for these people who have only been nice to him.

God then sends a fish to swallow Jonah, Jonah thought death was the answer. He sinned and ran from God so he should die. But death was the easy way out for Jonah. So instead Jonah learns that he will suffer until he agrees to return to the path God set for him.

Jonah goes to Ninveh. He gives a five word prophecy to the people and the people change their ways. How did a five word prophecy change these people’s lives?

The midrash picks up on a hint from the text and takes it further. When the King of Ninveh instructs the people on how to do teshuva he tells them, “…call out to God forcefully, and each man should return from his evil ways, and return the thievery in his hands. Who knows if God will return and have compassion and return from His anger and we will not be lost?” (3, 8-9)

Finding ourselves in others

It’s strange that first the people should call out to God to save them and only them change their ways. It should be the other way around. Otherwise it’s reminiscent of the idea of tovel v’sheretz byado someone who immerses the mikvah to purify themselves while holding a reptile that makes them impure- holding onto impurity while trying to achieve impurity is nonsensical. So to is calling out to God while in possession of stolen objects.

The midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 550) tells us that:

“They held their nursing babes up toward the sky and said to the Holy One, blessed be He, with great cries, ‘Do for these who have not sinned.’ And on the third day they all returned from their evil ways.”

What’s the connection? It seems that when they called for God to have mercy and compassion on their children. something woke up inside of them. It stirred their  empathy. They realized that just as they did not want God to harm them, that innocents would also be harmed, so too they have wrongly harmed. They regretted their actions and they changed their ways.

Empathy is the ability to identify with what other people are feeling. It’s how we can understand what it means to “Love your fellow as yourself,” (Vayikra 19, 18) and “Do not do unto others what you yourself hate.” (TB Tractate Shabbat 31a) Each of these golden rules uses empathy as a tool to guide how we treat our fellow man.

What is perhaps more interesting is who God is trying to teach Jonah to have empathy for. According to many midrashim and commentaries Jonah does not want the people of Ninveh to be saved because Ninveh is the capital of Assyria, and Assyria will eventually destroy and exile the ten tribes from the Kingdom of Israel and also destroy a good part of Judea. These people will be the enemies of Israel. And still God tries to teach Jonah that they are His creations, and so they are important. He must have compassion.

Empathy can be a powerful tool for change. But not if we lock ourselves in to fixed ideas so we are unable to see anything that does not fit our preconceived notions, including our fellow man.

This is what Jonah does. Jonah is sure of himself and the way the world works; he uses the words “I know.”

“Raise me and cast me into the sea and the sea will quiet on you for I know that  it is because of me this great storm is upon you.” (1, 12)

“Because I knew that you were a God of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and regrets evil.” (4, 2)

The people around him, on the other hand, are unsure- on the ship, “Get up and call to your God, maybe God will turn to us,” (1, 6), and in Ninveh, “Who knows if God will return and have compassion and return from His anger and we will not be lost?”

Even God himself changes his mind, “And God saw their works that they returned from their evil ways, and God regretted the evil which He said He would do to them, and did not do it.” (3, 12)

Jonah is the only one who remains steadfast. He sees this as a strength. But this is his greatest weakness.

On a mission from God

Jonah sees himself as a messenger of God, so he can’t realize he is also the object of the lesson. God sends many messengers to Jonah, Jonah refuses to see any of them. In a way he stays asleep on the bottom of that boat. Refusing to see the storm that rages around him, the suffering that he has caused, the lives he could save.

Twice in the last chapter of his book, Jonah asks for death, Yalkut Shimoni learns from here that:

“Anyone who is able to ask for mercy for his friend or bring him back in teshuva and does not bring him back will come to be troubled.”

When we stop seeing other people and stop reaching out to them we are troubled. I do not know if this means that God will send us troubles to rouse us from our slumber or that our soul will torment us because it is being hidden. But I do believe that the greatest suffering is experienced when we lose who we are meant to be and and what we are meant so do. It is only once we open our eyes and see ourselves and how we influence and are influenced by those around us that we will be able to see ourselves and our mission clearly.

If we see others as Gods creations worthy of kindness, then we will see ourselves as God’s creation.  We will find ourselves and we will find God. We will act in His image. And we will be worthy of His kindness.

Where are you? Tisha B’Av 5774

פתיחתא איכה רבה ד

רבי אבהו פתח, “והמה כאדם עברו ברית.” (הושע ו) זה אדם הראשון.

אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אדם הראשון הכנסתי אותו לגן עדן וצויתיו, ועבר על צוויי ודנתי אותו בגירושין ובשילוחין, וקוננתי עליו איכה.

הכנסתי אותו לגן עדן – שנאמר (בראשית ב’) ויקח ה’ אלהים את האדם ויניחהו בגן עדן.

וצויתיו, שנאמר (שם) ויצו ה’ אלהים על האדם לאמר וגו’.

ועבר על צוויי, שנאמר (שם ג’) המן העץ אשר צויתיך וגו’.

ודנתי אותו בגירושין, שנאמר (שם) ויגרש את האדם.

ודנתי אותו בשילוחין, שנאמר (שם) וישלחהו ה’ מגן עדן.

וקוננתי עליו איכה, שנאמר (שם) ויאמר לו איכה.

“איכה” כתיב.

אף בניו הכנסתי אותם לארץ ישראל, שנאמר (ירמיה ב’) ואביא אתכם אל ארץ הכרמל.

וצויתים, שנאמר (ויקרא כ”ד) צו את בני ישראל.

ועברו על צוויי, שנאמר (דניאל ט’) וכל ישראל עברו את תורתך.

ודנתי אותם בגירושין, שנאמר (הושע ט’) מביתי אגרשם.

ודנתי אותם בשילוחין, שנאמר (ירמיה ט”ו) שלח מעל פני ויצאו.

וקוננתי עליהם: איכא ישבה בדד:

 

The midrash on Eicha Rabba compares the plight of the Children of Israel with the plight of the first man, Adam. God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, gave him a commandment, he transgressed that commandment and was judged with exile, he was cast away, and God keened for him with the word, Ayekha, where are you, spelled the same way in Hebrew as the word Eicha, how?

The midrash continues, so too his children were placed in Israel, given commandements, and transgressed those commandments, and they were judged to be exiled, and sent away, and God keened for them, Eicha.

The midrash appears to put the pain and suffering of the Jewish people after the destruction of the First Temple and the following exile into the context of a much greater cycle of commandment, sin, destruction, and exile.

Yet even more, the midrash focuses not on the pain of the people, but on God’s pain. God gave man a gift- the Garden of Eden, the Land of Israel- and instructions on how to safeguard that gift. God had plans, expectations. Man ruined everything. So man was sent away. And God was left to mourn alone. God keens for man. For what could have been.

In Megillat Eicha Yirmiyahu, the voice of Israel, asks “Eicha?!” “How?!”

In Bereishit God asks Adam, “Ayekha?” “Where are you?”

This is what we are meant to do on this day. We are meant to look at ourselves, where we are at this moment and everything that led us here. Millenia of history, of the Jewish people, of humankind, are meant to be used to figure out “Where are you?”

I guarantee you all- if we had the answer, things would be better already.

And so I beg all of you all of you claiming with certainty or sharing on social media:

  • that this is the last fast we will ever need, that the Messiah is at hand, sharing crowdsourced funding projects to rebuild the Temple
  • that only a two state solution can save us
  • that only a one state solution can save us
  • that only the IDF can save us
  • that only dialogue can save us
  • that this one Rabbi has the answer
  • that this one politician has the answer
  • that this one pundit has the answer
  • that we’ve finally found the secret to heal ourselves because one segment of the population is praying for or protecting another segment of the population
  • that only mass Aliya will save us
  • that there is nothing left to save

I beg of you: STOP.

Don’t just stop making these claims. Stop everything.

Just sit quietly and ask yourself one question: Where are you?

Of course this is not such a simple question.

  • Is you the collective you or the singular you?
  • Are you one singular person in a chain of generations, or do you only speak for the here and the now?
  • Perhaps you are one singular Jew in your community, country, the world?
  • Or maybe it is more complicated than all of this?

I don’t pretend to have the answer. I only wish other people also stopped pretending.

So today, in the last hour of this fast, I ask my friends to do what I have been doing all day. Stop focusing on answers and start asking questions.

Look at the entirety of history: world history, Jewish history. Look at the entirety of current events: In Israel and abroad. Look at you and look at those around you.

Where are you? How did this happen? Ayekha? Eicha?

Look at every time we have disappointed God.

Don’t focus on just one answer, the one that comes most easily is probably the one you least need to hear.

It is impossible to know where you are without knowing what is around you, and who is around you. Do you see those people- really see them? Who is he? Who is she?

Now widen that circle. And again. And again.

Who is your family? Who is your community? Who is your state? Who is your people? Who is your world?

Is the world a broken place? How did this happen?

 Once you have finished this silent exercise slowly start listening- not only to the people who echo the answers you already found, but also to those people who say things you are uncomfortable with. Carefully examine what they say to find the kernel of truth in their words. Even the greatest lies are based in truth.

How do they answer these questions?

 You may find it difficult to do this. It may be hard to listen to all these voices. Many of them are filled with pain, or hatred, or rage. Some of them may be uncomfortably happy. Perhaps your own voice echoes these things. So how can I listen to these other voices when I think they are so full of lies or hatred or misconceptions?

We’re not supposed to learn Torah on this day, so I will not bring you the midrashim or philosophers who discuss truth. This is not a day pf philosophizing. Instead I ask you to ask yourself if you think you are the one person in the world who has a monopoly on truth. I ask you to ask yourself if you see yourself more clearly when looking at yourself or when looking through other people’s eyes. Perhaps it is a balance of the two?

Megillat Eicha ends with two questions. One is a request: Return us to you, God, and we will return. Renew our days of old. The second is a cry: For if you have truly despised us, you have been exceedingly angry with us.

There is no answer here. There are only questions. What are these days of old that we wish for? Why must God return first? Why has God despised us? Who decided it was too much?

Will He ever take us back?

When will we deserve to be taken back?

Getting the land, keeping the land: the teachings of Moshe and Yishayahu

This week we read the words of two prophets- Moshe and Yishayahu. Moshe speaks to the People of Israel as they are standing at the precipice, about to enter the Land of Israel and a new stage of history. They are bursting with potential. When Yishayahu speaks to the people they are also standing at a precipice, about to fall off the edge into the darkness of exile. They squandered their potential and are bursting with sin. “Oh people of sin, a nation heavy with iniquity…” (Yishayahu 1, 4)

At first glance they seem to have nothing in common. The haftorah of “Chazon Yishayahu” that we read the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is part of a series of haftarot that are tied to the calendar year and not the parsha of the week. Yet Chazon Yishayahu is always read the same week as Parshat Devarim. Even Chazal compare the two parshiot when they point out that three prophets used the term “Eicha” when describing the Children of Israel- Moshe, Yishayahu, and Yirmiyahu. (Eicha Rabba 1)In the next week we will read each of their words. This can be no mere coincidence, or linguistic anomaly.

So what is the deeper lesson here?

The words of Moshe

Moshe begins his speech to the Children of Israel with a brief overview of their history until that point. He condenses forty years into a few chapters. But Moshe leaves out some key events- such as the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah- and puts in some seemingly minor ones- like the appointment of leaders and judges. This leaves us wondering what the point of Moshe’s speech here is.

Let’s figure it out.

We’ll begin with Moshe’s beginning. The first story he tells us is the appointment fo wise men to help guide the people. The question that people get hung up on here is what historical event is Moshe referring to- the establishment of the court system as described in Shmot 18, the beginning of Parshat Yitro, or the establishment of the leadership of the elders as described in Bamidbar 11?

What people fail to realize is the answer to this question is irrelevant. Moshe is not trying to teach history to the people of Israel, he is just trying to teach the people of Israel. And so the real question is not what does this story refer to but what does this story teach us?

The story relates to the establishment of leaders and a justice system. It does not relate any new information about what it takes to be a good leader and judge (v. 9-18)- intelligent, understanding heads of the community who will “adjudicate righteousness between man and his brother and his stranger (geiro).” What’s new here is the context. In Shmot 18 the context was a prerequisite to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. In Bamidbar Moshe is dealing with a crisis of leadership.

Here the context is very different. Moshe’s story is bookended by the Divine command to enter the land of Canaan and the fulfillment of that command:

The Lord, our God spoke to us in Chorev saying: Long have you sat at this mountain. Turn and go for you and come to the mountain of the Emorites and to all its surroundings in the Arava, the mountains and lowlands and desert and sea shore, the land of the Canaanite and the Levannon, until the great river, the Euphrates River. Behold I have given before you the land, go and conquer the land that God swore to your fathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, to give to them and their children after them. (v. 6-8)

Then there’s the appointment of leaders and judges. And then:

And we traveled from Chorev and walked all that great and terrible wilderness that you saw by way of the mountain of the Emorites as the Lord our God commanded us and we arrived at Kadesh Barnea. And I told you, “You have come to the mountain of the Emorites that the Lord our God is giving to us. Behold the Lord your God has given the land before you, go up and conquer it as God, the God of your fathers, has said to you, do not fear and do not tremble. (v. 19-21)

The commandment to journey to the land and fulfillment are almost identical. In this context the story of the judicial system appears to be an unnecessary interruption.

Yet Moshe deems it very necessary. It’s almost like Moshe is saying: ‘Yo God, I’ma let you finish, but a judicial system is the best thing of all time.’

Almost as if there is no possibility of settling the land with proper leadership and a judicial system.

The Sin of the Spies

Our next stop on Moshe’s trip down memory lane is the sin of the spies and related stories. This story is also surrounded by a command and fulfillment to enter the land, and it makes much more sense in context. It is here to explain to us why almost 40 years pass between the beginning of the journey described above in verses 19-21 and the final leg of that journey described in the next chapter. That command section of the first leg of the journey in the 2nd year in the desert is almost identical to the command 38 years later-

Year 2:

“The Lord, our God spoke to us in Chorev to say: Long have you sat at this mountain. Turn and go for you and come to the mountain of the Emorites and to all its surroundings…” (1, 6-7)

Year 40:

“God said to me to say: Long have you circled this mountain, turn for you to the north…” (2, 2-3)

But to explain that the only reason this section is included is to understand the 38 year delay is to miss the point entirely. Once again, Moshe is not teaching history, he is teaching us lessons. This lesson is apparent when one realizes that Moshe does not end with the decree that the older generation would not enter the land and the promise would be fulfilled by their children. Rather Moshe continues and describes how Calev and Yehoshua will enter the land, because they gave positive reports, and Moshe will not go into the land. And then he goes on:

“And you answered and said to me: We have sinned to God, we will go up and fight as the Lord our God commanded; and each man will gird his weapons and we are ready to go up to the mountain. And God said to me: Say to them, ‘Do not go up and do not fight because I am not in your midst, so you will not be smitten before your enemies.’ And I spoke to you and you did not listen and you rebelled against the word of God and you purposely went up the mountain. And the Emorites who dwell in that mountain went out to meet you and they chased you like bees and they beat you completely in Seir.”

Moshe leaves out certain elements related in the original story in Bamidbar- such as the negative report of the spies, the plague that followed, and Moshe’s prayer for forgiveness. Instead he relates in detail a story that almost seems like an appendix in its original context. Once again, Moshe leaves out the details that are immaterial to his point and emphasizes that which is relevant. The point he is trying to make is very clear- who is privileged to enter the land of Israel, who is not, and why. It is so clear we can even chart it

Will not enter

Will enter

Older generation

“In this thing you do not believe in the Lord, your God.”

Children

“that this day they do not know good and evil.”

Calev ben Yefuneh

“because he has wholly followed the Lord.”

Moshe

“God also scorned me because of you”

Yehoshua bin Nun

“Because he will cause you to possess it.”

 

The “Ma’apilim”

“Because I am not in your midst”

 

On an individual level we have the leaders- Moshe will not enter the land “because of you,” because of the people; and seemingly Yehoshua will enter the land- ”because he will cause you to possess it.” According to Moshe the leaders are not judged entirely on their own merit, rather, their fate is tied to the people they lead. Moshe does not enter the land- because of the people, Yehoshua does enter the land- because of the people. This seems to reinforce the idea that people get the leaders they deserve. The people entering Israel did not deserve Moshe, they deserved Yehoshua.The people who are not allowed to enter the land are the ones who do not have proper Faith in God. There are two groups of people described- there is the nation who did not believe God would save them from their foes in the land of Canaan just as He had in the land of Egypt and the Ma’apiliim (as they are known) because they believed they could succeed without God. In contrast we have the collective of the next generation- who are too young to be faulted for any lack of faith and can be taught through forty years in the desert, living straight from the hand of God -“And He afflicted you and made you hungry, and fed you the manna that you did not know and your fathers did not know in order that you know that man does not live on bread alone, but rather man lives on the utterance of God’s mouth.” (Devarim 8, 3)
A strange exception here is Calev ben Yefuneh who as an individual is not subjected to the fate of the collective, “I will give him the land he walked through, and his children, because he has wholly followed the Lord.” This seems to teach us that individuals can earn their own portion in the land even if the nation whole is undeserving. God, at least at times, will not group the righteous with the wicked.

Moshe continues his narrative in the 40th year in the desert and spending the next two chapters describing confrontations with other nations on the way to enter into Israel. He lays down a pretty simple rules of engagement- when God says engage then engage, and when God says don’t engage don’t engage. If God has given them the land He will not give it to us, and if God has chosen to give us the land our enemies will not succeed. Moshe ends this short speech with an exhortation to fulfill the mitzvot and follow the ways of God.

The lesson

In his first speech Moshe tells us very simply and clearly how we will come to possess the Land of Israel. God will help us prevail on two conditions: if we set up a righteous society that treats insiders and outsiders (ger)justly, and if we have faith that God is in our midst.

Chazon Yishayahu

In the first chapter of Yishayahu’s prophecies Yishayahu rails against the people of Israel and Judah for their iniquities. Our sages teach us that the First Temple was destroyed because of three sins- idol worship, bloodshed, and immoral sexual relationships- yet this chapter doesn’t mention idols or immoral sexual relationships. In many places Yishayahu chastises the people for their idol worship, but there is zero mention of it here.

Instead, Yishayahu focuses on one central problem-

“How has the faithful city become like a harlot?! Filled with justice, righteousness lodged within her, and now murderers. Your silver is dross, your wine mixed with water. Your leaders are rebellious, a company of thieves, they all love bribes and chase rewards; they do not adjudicate for the orphans and the complaints of the widows do not come before them. So says the Master, Lord of Hosts, the Mighty One of Israel, I will ease Myself of my tormentors and take vengeance on My enemies. I will turn My hand on you and purge your dross as with lye and take away your alloy. I will restore your judges as they were at first and your counselors as the beginning; Afterward you will be called City of Righteousness, Faithfull City. Zion will be redeemed with justice and those that return to her with righteousness. But the destruction of the transgressors and the sinners will be together, and those that forsake the Lord will be consumed.”

Why is Israel suffering? Why is there war everywhere-

 “From the sole of the foot up until the head there is nothing whole; but wounds and bruises and festering sores that have not been pressed nor bound up nor dressed with oil. Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire… “

Because we have no justice and because we have left God.

It’s really quite simple

Moshe tells us these two things are prerequisites to settle the land of Israel- Justice and Faith in God. Yishayahu tells us that when it all boils down these are the reasons we suffer war and exile- lack of justice and lack of faithfulness.

In fact, these are the reasons that Avraham and his children are chosen as a nation to receive this land in the first place:

“And Avraham will be a great and mighty nation, and all nations of the land will be blessed through him. Because I have known him that he will command his children and his household after him and they will keep the path of God to do righteousness and justice in order that God bring to Avraham all that He spoke of him. (Bereishit 18, 18-19)

It’s very simple: to receive these blessings from God- the land, the nation- we have to walk in God’s path of righteousness and justice. We have to appoint leaders who “will adjudicate righteousness” both “between man and his brother,” and also the ger, “his stranger.” (Devarim 1, 16)

What easier way to bring blessing to the world than by spreading teachings of the path of God, of righteousness and justice?

Are we doing enough?

As war rages around us we are witness to an amazing outpouring of chessed and achdut (kindness and unity). The love and support being given to our brave soldiers who risk their lives to save ours, their family members, the families who have lost so much… it brings tears of joy to my eyes.

But are we doing enough?

Are we doing enough to take care of the ger– the non-Jews who seek shelter in our midst? Are we treating them righteously? Are we doing enough to purge ourselves of those that spread hate and racism against God’s creations, men created in God’s image? Are we doing enough to stop people who claim they speak for justice as they spread violence and attack innocents? Are we doing enough to take down our corrupt leaders as they try to lead us astray?

Our soldiers defend our precious lives and our precious country with their bodies. We must defend these things with our actions. Prayer is not enough.

“When you spread your hands I will avert My eyes, even if you abound in prayer I will not hear- your hands are full of blood. Cleanse yourselves, purify yourselves, remove your evil deeds from my eyes, stop doing evil. Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the orphans, plead for the widow… If you are willing and listen you shall eat the good of the land.” (Yishayahu 15-19)

We think we are doing everything we can do. Clearly we are not. If we were we would not be surrounded by pain, injustice, and war. We need to look at ourselves- let’s not let the beautiful displays of kindness blind our eyes to the problems we still face. We need to find the festering wounds in ourselves that Yishayahu is talking about and treat the infected areas.

“Seek justice and relieve the oppressed… you shall eat of the good of the land.”

I pray that we learn this lesson, that we are able to make ourselves into models of justice and righteousness, spread blessing to the nations of the world and live in peace. May we know no more war.

Parshat Vayikra: Let’s learn about sacrifices

We tend to view things in black and white.

God is good. Idol worship is bad.

Kindness is good. Cruelty is bad.

Barbecues are delicious. Animal sacrifice is creepy.

And so you generally find two types of religious Jews- those who want really, really want Mashiach and the Temple and those who really, really don’t.

Those who want the Temple don’t think much about animal sacrifice, instead they romanticize some Golden Age of Judaism and believe that the Torah is perfect and was never meant to change and if we don’t understand something it’s because we “aren’t on that level.” Those who don’t want the Temple romanticize modernity in all its wonderful advancements and believe that if the Torah is perfect it will somehow reflect all these advancements.

The former desecrate the Torah by saying there are parts of it that are so profound they are meaningless to us today, it elevates the Torah to a level beyond human comprehension and dismissed all the moral and spiritual advances of humankind over thousands of years. The latter desecrates the Torah by saying that we are so profound there are parts of the Torah that are meaningless to us today, it elevates humanity to a level beyond the Torah and dismisses the wisdom of the Torah that has guided our people for thousands of years.

Rare is the person who grapples with the conflict. Who tries to understand how they can feel an obligation to the Torah and be bound by its laws and yet feel so far away from such an integral portion of it. A third of Sefer Shmot was about building the mishkan. A third of Sefer Vayikra is about service in the Mishkan. Three times a day we pray for God to rebuild the Temple and return His presence to Zion. Are these just empty words?

Are our prayers lies? Is our Torah devoid of meaning?

I really hope not. But I fear the worst.

Many of us have ceased attempting to understand. We ignore the conflict because it makes us uneasy. We mumble our prayers and we joke about how hard it is to find a dvar Torah throughout Sefer Vayikra. But if  I have learned one thing over the years it is that living with conflict is fine, but ignoring conflict is not. Ignoring these questions makes us shallow and our Judaism shallow. Like our forefather Yaakov we must confront our demons, face our challenges. While we may lose a part of ourselves in this confrontation, running away from conflict does not make this conflict go away.

Hopefully we will find a way into the gray- some appreciation of the eternal truth of the Torah combined with a respect for our modern morality and spirituality. Hopefully we will find substance in these parshiyot and bring meaning to our prayers.

So over the next few weeks I hope to use this forum to grapple with these questions. I hope you do to. Don’t have a dvar Torah for Parshat Vayikra- how about throwing out a few questions at your Shabbat table: What do you feel about sacrifices? How do you grapple with the conflict? How do you find meaning in your Torah, in your prayers?

Parshat Pekudei: Of Mirrors and Men

Consistently Under Construction

Sometimes even Moshe gets it wrong

It’s not often that the Midrash tells us Moshe got it wrong, but that’s just what the Tanchuma on Pekudei does. Usually, Moshe Rabbeinu is portrayed as a great leader whose genuine humility helps him understand the people. Naturally, our curiosity should be piqued when the Midrash tells us otherwise.

It seems pertinent to mention that versions of this midrash appears in numerous works (such as T.B. Sotah 11B, Midrash Tanhuma 38:9 and Rashi on Pekudei, Midrash Rabba Shemot 1:12, and Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim 68), which is a testimony to the importance of the story to the Oral tradition. While the details and scope of the story varies, the gist of it remains the same: Among the donations for the Temple recounted in Parshat Pekudei, Moshe finds the women have donated their mirrors. Moshe is angered by this donation, possibly because…

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Seder Tu B’Shvat

I don’t like Tu B’Shvat. I don’t “connect” to it. Once upon a time I did, I enjoyed a few Tu B’Shvat Seders in my day, but to make a long blog post short- no more.

But today a friend of mine asked me if I had a Tu B’Shvat Seder text- because I’m the type of person who has things like that lying around- and because I am the type of person who has things like that lying around, I dug into my computer files and found a copy of a Tu B’Shvat Seder I compiled years ago. Some of the midrashim I put in that mentioned fruit I could take or leave. It seems like most Tu B’Shvat seders involve a lot of midrashim that compare the Jewish people to fruit. Or grain. Or nuts (pun was only an afterthought). How long can you sit around doing that?

But I also had the sense to include a few more general ideas. Midrashim and stories that teach us how we’re supposed to relate to our kind fauna friends, and the land they come from. So I am sharing the text of my Tu B’Shvat Seder with you. You are welcome to use it, but I do ask that you don’t pass it off as your own. Also- the pictures are not mine and I have not secured rights to them.

I hope this helps you make this day meaningful.Seder tu Bshvat new

Offensive Reading

We’re all guilty of it.

Or at least I am.

Someone posts some article from a “frum” website on Facebook and mentions how offensive or backwards it is and we all click on it, devouring each word as they reaffirm everything we think is wrong with the “frum” world. Like watching a car crash- it’s gruesome yet titillating. It makes us sick and it makes us angry.

And that’s exactly what we wanted to feel when we pushed our mouse button and opened the sucker up.

The entire reason we bothered to look was so we could self-righteously congratulate ourselves on our chosen path and reject anything and everything that is different. Often it’s not that the article is even all that offensive, but rather that we are on the offensive. We are actively looking for what is wrong with “their” way of thinking. Why we should reject anything and everything “they” say.

And in a way I am the biggest culprit. I originally started this blog to make fun of a book of absolutely horrible dating advice. The kind of dating advice that had me thinking “I’d rather be single my entire life than get into a marriage by following this drivel.” And every once in a while I had friends call me out, tell me I was reading too much into it, I was too harsh on the guy. And sometimes, but only rarely, they were right. I was purposely trying to take offense. I do the same thing when I read articles related to Israeli politics. I look for every phrase and opinion-presented-as-fact that doesn’t fit my rigid understanding of the political reality and I take offense. I get angry. And it helps no one.

On the flip side there’s some article I read when I was studying Bible study techniques. It put forward the argument that instead of looking for everything wrong about the selection one is studying  one should look for what is right. They should give the selection the benefit of the doubt. Since the author clearly wanted the reader to learn something constructive we should read it in the spirit it was written and try to find a positive take-away. For example- in Genesis when poor, barren Rachel complains to Jacob that if he doesn’t give her children she is dead and Jacob responds by saying he’s not God- I could think that the author of the Bible is saying women are nothing without children but clearly God didn’t find Rachel deserving of a life, or I could understand that this is a sharp critique of Jacob’s character and his lack of empathy toward his supposedly beloved wife’s pain, and perhaps if he had been more supportive all the messy family stuff that ensued may not have happened.

Meaning- words can be read in many ways. So many that modern philosophers argue whether we can even talk about the author’s intent once they have committed their words to print. And just like people, we can choose to see the good and we can choose to see the bad. As a Torah scholar and a committed Jew I choose to see the positive when I approach the sacred texts of my tradition. Unfortunately, I do not give contemporary Jewish authors the same benefit of the doubt.

And until tonight I never realized my egregious error. I was content to “hate-read” these articles, stewing over their “offensive” content but refraining from replying because I don’t want to be “that person.” Tonight, however, I responded.

It all started innocently enough. A friend posted a link to an article on dating advice, 5 Things that turn guys off, with the comment “Stay classy.” I opened it to “hate-read” the terrible advice, only to discover that the author is a person I know and respect. And so I read it both ways at once- what did I think the author meant, knowing them well, and what did my friend, whom I also respect, read into it.

it was a rude awakening.

People were commenting that the article belonged to the 1920’s. That it told women to be submissive. To minimize their professional accomplishments. Or not to be themselves.

What I read was that one shouldn’t be overly-argumentative. That career is not everything and who you are as a person and a friend is also important. That you should be the best version of yourself.

I read it this way because even though the words in the article left room for interpretation I knew the author well enough to know what they were aiming for, even if the words were a bit off target.

And so I would like to say that I am sorry. I am sorry for all those people I misjudged and for all those times I thought more about an author’s words than they thought themselves. Above all I am sorry for all the opportunities I missed to learn, to hear advice that probably would have benefited me, all those times I didn’t sift through the not-helpful to find the helpful.

All the offense I took hurt no one but myself.

And so I have decided- if I am going to while away my time clicking on random internet articles I should at least try to learn something constructive from each one. Tonight I had an eye-opening experience. I hope there will be many more to follow.

Toldot: What was Yitzchak thinking?

What was Yitzchak thinking?

That’s what most of us think when we read this parsha. The midrash paints a disturbing picture of Esav as a bloodthirsty, manipulative thief. But we don’t need this information to know that Esav is not worthy of his father’s blessing. The text itself tells us that this hunter married two wives from the area. (Bereishit 25, 34-35) In case you don’t remember, the one and only criteria that Avraham had for Yitzchak’s bride was that she not be from one of the Canaanite nations. (24, 3) It’s very difficult to build a unique nation when you marry into your neighbors; instead of influencing them, chances are, as the majority, they will influence you. And that is why a certain distance must be maintained.

It’s no wonder that this was painful for his parents. This is a clear deviation from the path of Avraham. So why does Yitzchak still want to bless him?

To understand this we need to understand some background information.

The blessing

Firstly, the blessing that Yaakov receives when he is dressed up as Esav is not the blessing that he will receive the land of Israel or be the one chosen nation. That blessing bears more resemblance to the second blessing Yitzchak gives Yaakov, at the end of the parsha when Yitzchak is fully aware he is blessing Yaakov, before Yaakoov runs off the Charan. There we are told Yitzchak says to Yaakov:

“May God give the blessing of Avraham to you and your seed with you; that you will inherit the land that you dwell in, which God gave to Avraham.” (28, 4)

Notice Yitzchak does not give him the blessing here, he blesses him that God should bless him. The reason for this is that this is not his blessing to give. Only God can give the land of Israel.

Now getting back to the first blessing, the one Yitzchak meant for Esav- even though that was not THE blessing, let’s not minimize its importance.

May God give you from the dew of the heaven and the fat places of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Peoples will serve you and nations bow to you, you will be a lord over your brethren and your mother’s sons will bow down to you. Cursed be every one that curse you and blessed those that bless you. (27, 28-29)

The theme of blessing and cursing here may be familiar to you, it was part of the very first blessing that God gave to Avraham. (12, 3) So let’s not trivialize this blessing. There is a reason Yaakov wanted to take this blessing for himself.

Yaakov’s part in it all

There are no two ways about it. Yaakov used trickery on his father. Even Yitzchak says as much, “Your brother came with trickery and he took your blessing.” (27, 35)

What Yaakov did was not kosher. Not by the standards of human decency and not by the standards of the Torah. Yaakov tried to take advantage of his elderly, blind father. He stole something from his brother. He brought turmoil to his home. God and the Torah judge him harshly for his actions. In this case the ends, no matter how important they may have been, do not justify the means.

So he pays for his deceit for the rest of his life. Lavan switches the older daughter for the younger one when he marries of Leah to Yaakov. The irony in Lavan’s justification of the switch should not be lost on the reader, “Such a thing is not done in our place, to give the younger before the older.” (29, 25) In other words- you may have switched the younger for the older, but here such an immoral thing is not done. The midrash makes this even more obvious. When it describes how Yaakov confronts Leah the morning after their wedding night she tells him she learned from him. Just as he called her Rachel and she answered, so too when his father called him Esav, he answered. (Yalkut Shimoni 29, 22)

But this is not the only consequence of Yaakov’s deceit. Just as he tricked his father using clothing, so too his sons deceive him and make him believe Yosef is dead using the colored coat. And just as Yaakov was forced out of his father’s house for over twenty years because of his deceit, so too Yosef is absent from his home for over twenty years. Just as Yaakov’s actions forfeited any chance for peace in his parents’ home, so too his home would never have peace. Yaakov ruined any chance of a relationship with his brother. He also placed a permanent wedge between Rivka and Esav. It’s no wonder that we never see a reunion between Rivka and Yaakov. He took his mother from his brother, and so his mother is taken from him.

Now what about Rivka’s part in all this?

Don’t get me wrong, Rivka pays for her part in all this. She lost two sons that day. But the whole deceit thing probably wasn’t her idea.

Yeah, you read that right. Let’s look at what happened:

Rivka said to Yaakov her son, saying: “I heard your father speaking to Esav your brother saying, ‘Bring me venison and make me savory food that I can eat it and bless you before God before I die.’ And now my son listen to my voice to what I command you. Go now to the flock and take two good he-goats from there and I will make them savory for your father like he loves; And you will bring them to your father and he will eat them so that he will bless you before his death.”

And Yaakov said to Rivka his mother, “Bus Esav my brother is a hairy man and I am a smooth man. Maybe my father will touch me and I will be like a mocker in his eyes and I will bring a curse and not a blessing on myself.”

In case you didn’t get it, Rivka just told Yaakov to make his father some yummy food so he can ALSO get a blessing. No stealing, no impersonating. It’s Yaakov who thinks about the impersonating. This may not fit well with the story we’ve learned since kindergarten, but it does fit in better with the words of the Torah. And with what we know of Yaakov’s personality.

We’ve seen that though the blessing Yaakov took is not the blessing of Avraham it is an important blessing for political power and material wealth. We’ve seen that Esav wasn’t really deserving of Avraham’s blessing. And we’ve seen that under no circumstances were the tactics that Yaakov used to get the blessing legitimate. So what should he have done? How could Yaakov ensure he gets the blessing he believes Esav does not deserve?

Human beings are not computers, we don’t work on binary code. Yaakov and Rivka were not limited to one of two choices- steal the blessing or lose it. There were many other options in front of them, including speaking to Yitzchak. So why didn’t they?

Why doesn’t Rivka just talk to Yitzchak?

The Netziv offers a very interesting insight into this question. When Yitzchak and Rivka first meet there is a very curious interaction:

Yitzchak went out to meditate/walk in the field in the toward evening, and he raised his eyes and he saw and behold camels were coming. And Rivka raised her eyes and saw Yitzchak and she fell from on the camel. And she said to the servant, ‘Who is this man that is walking in the field towards us?’ And the servant said, ‘He is my master.’ And she took the scarf and covered herself. And the servant told Yitzchak all the things that he did. And Yitzchak brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rivka and she became a wife for him and he loved her and he was comforted after his mother. (24, 63-67)

Why does Rivka fall? Why does she cover herself? The Netziv explains that this interaction lays the groundwork for their entire relationship. Rivka first sees Yitzchak when he is praying, and to her he looks like an angel. She loses her composure, she is embarrassed and she covers herself. Even though she regains it when she finally meets Yitzvhak she always feels that he is holier than herself, that there is something other-worldly about him. And so she is never once able to confront him, even when she disagrees with him. When Sarah had a complaint about Hagar she went to Avraham, when Rachel had a complaint about being barren she went to Yaakov. But Rivka never complains or confront Yitzchak.

I partially agree with the Netziv. I do think that this first encounter sets the tone for the relationship between Rivka and Yitzchak. And I also agree that Rivka was in at least a bit of awe of Yitzchak, and that there was something angelic about Yitzchak. How could there not be? At a young age he was willing to give up his life to God, no questions asked. According to some midrashim, he actually did die at the akeida, and then the angels in heaven spent the next few years putting his body back together in heaven. I don’t think this midrash is meant to be understood literally, but it does teach us that part of Yitzchak’s human side dies during the akeida, and in certain way he stayed on that heavenly level.

But while I agree with the Netziv about how Rivka viewed Yitzchak, I think he fails to take into account how Yitzchak felt about Rivka.

The Netziv does remark that we are told “He loved her,” to emphasize that Yitzchak did truly love Rivka, lest we mistakenly think it was a loveless marriage. And also that this love comforted him after the loss of his mother. It was that powerful a love.

Now love, real love, does not exist without respect and appreciation. While Yitzchak may have had a heavenly aura about him, that does not mean that he was perfect. He loved Rivka because she was his other half, she completed him. She was a doer. She was outgoing. He only loved Rivka after he heard what the servant “did”- the test he set up and how Rivka passed with flying colors. Yitzchak loved Rivka for who she was.

Yitzchak and Rivka have a loving relationship unlike any of the relationship between any of the therpatriarchs and matriarchs. Yitzchak is the only one of the forefathers prayed not only for children for himself, but also for his wife: “And Yitzchak entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren.” (25, 21) Yitzchak is the only one of the forefathers who only had one partner. And Yitzchak and Rivka are the only couple we hear about being intimate. (26, 9)

There can be no doubt that that love included respect.

So why is there no confrontation?

Hanoch Teller tells an interesting story in his book about Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurebach. According to family and friends the Rav and his wife never fought. Apparently, when they were first married he and his wife made a deal- he would be make the decisions when it came to Torah, and she would make decisions when it came to everything else. They each respected the other’s competence and expertise in each area and so they never once disagreed.

I’m not judging this one way or another, but I do understand how such a model can work.

If you look at Yitzchak’s life you see that he never does have confrontations. There are no confrontations between him and Yishmael in the way that there are between Avraham and Lot or Yaakov and Esav. There is no confrontation between him and his wife about progeny, like Yaakov has with Rachel and Avraham with Sarah twice, once about Hagar and once about Yishmael. And if you compare the interactions between Yitzchak and Avimelech to those between Avraham and Avimelech you can see the glaring difference between their two styles- Avraham and Avimelech have confrontations- their exchanges are often long and drawn out. But that is not the case with Yitzchak. He says his peace and moves on.

This does not mean that Yitzchak is scared of confrontation. On the contrary, he is above confrontation. So many of us feel the need to strive with those around us to prove that they are wrong. Yitzchak doesn’t feel this need because he is so secure that he does not need to prove it to anyone else. They will eventually come around and until that point confrontation is pointless. Avraham and Avimelech strive, in the end they make peace, but that peace does not last- because it was forged through confrontation and compromise. Yitzchak ignores every time Avimelech tries to provoke him and feels no need to forge a peace with Avimelech, and, lo and behold, Avimelech never bothers him or his sons again. Because Avimelech finally comes to respect this otherness in Yitzchak.

And this is why we hear so few Yitzchak stories. It’s not that he is passive. He does a lot in the short amount of text allowed to him. He goes through all the major events Avraham went through- barrenness, famine, well-digging, material prosperity- he just does it faster, more successfully and conflict-free. So while he is not passive, he is boring. Most of us do not have the clarity of vision that Yitzchak has, the ability to see the goal and head to it without letting anyone else get in the way. Because we are unsure of ourselves, we live in conflict. And so we can’t really relate to Yitzchak. We have very little to learn from him. Which is why the Torah tells us so little about his life.

The possibile outcomes

So Yitzchak and Rivka don’t argue about this not because they are not aware of each other’s opinions, or do not respect them, but because there was no point in the argument. Yitzchak saw the world one way and Rivka saw it in a different way.

When Rivka was pregnant she sought out God and was told:

There are two nations in your womb and two people will be separated from bowels; and one people will be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.(25, 23)

It seems that Rivka understood this to mean that her sons would constantly be at war with each other. But one could also understand this to be similar to the explanation Yaakov gives when he switches his hands when he blesses his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe:

“He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; however his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.” (48, 19)

Nations can be separate nations, but they can also refer to tribes of the same nation. One may be mightier than the other, but they maintain their familial connection.

And so while Rivka may believe that Esav has no place in the chosen nation, it seems that Yitzchak does not agree with her. He sees a future of harmony, of synthesis. One where his two sons, Esav and Yaakov, work together to build a great nation. Esav has political power and material wealth. Yaakov, as per his second blessing, inherits the land of Israel. Esav’s materialistic side is used to serve the holy nation, and Yaakov’s children are free to develop themselves spiritually. It is a world where everyone wins. Their inherent natures are allowed to thrive, harmoniously. Conflict free.

But Yitzchak lives in an ideal world and Rivka lives in this world. Rivka does not believe such a utopian future is possible. She sees war, she sees strife, she sees conflict.

Conclusion

We know the end of the story. Yaakov steals the blessing. Yaakov becomes the father of the chosen nation. Esav is left out.

But was this the path that was meant to be?

It clearly wasn’t ideal that Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge. He lives with the consequences and so do we. It wasn’t ideal that the Jewish people sinned with the Golden Calf or the spies in the desert.they lived with the consequences and so do we. Perhaps Yaakov’s act was also not ideal?

He is not the only one who lives with the consequences. According to the Rabbis, the Jewish people continued to feel the consequences of Esav’s loss and pain for years to come. When Esav heard that Yaakov stole his blessing we are told, “He cried an exceedingly great and bitter cry.” The midrash tells us that this cry reverberates all the way to Shushan, almost 1,500 years later. After Haman’s decree to kill all the Jews was sent out we are told that Mordechai, “Cried an exceedingly great and bitter cry.” (Midrash Rabba Bereishit 27, 4) If Esav had not suffered, then perhaps the Jewish people would not have suffered. And according to Chazal, Esav is the father of Rome and Christianity. All that we have suffered over the generations from their hands can be traced back to this moment in history.

What would have happened if things had been different? What would have happened if Yaakov had just spoken to his father? Or if Yitzchak’s vision would have been realized?

I do not know.

But what I do know is that the Torah teaches us something truly profound here.

To be a holy nation our means must also be holy. A chosen nation must examine all its options and choose wisely.

The ends do not justify the means. And in the end, there are consequences for those means.