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Toldot ~ Speaking freely in the second Jewish family

Toldot is the one reading that is dedicated to Yitzchak alone – and Yitzchak’s character and personality are not very developed since he is squeezed between two strong characters, Avraham and Yaakov. He also marries a strong woman, which is Rivkah.

Early in the reading we learn that both parents chose to prefer one of the twins: Yitzchak likes Esav and Rivkah likes Yaakov. We also know that Rivkah knows that the older will serve the younger. We also know that, coming hungry from a hunting trip, Esav sells his birthright for lentil stew.

And then our reading opens with Yitzchak making a peace pact with Avimelech, and becoming blind after that. Then the scene of the blessing happens, and I am purposefully being vague because I want you to think for yourself.

One of the most tragic images of the Torah is the sobbing of Esav when he realizes he will not receive a blessing. Even though the triennial reading ends on verse 27:27, I would like to invite you to read a few more verses, up to verse 38. So please find that in your chumashim, to have the full vision of the scene of the blessing. The scene begins on verse 1 of chapter 27.

Do you think Yitzchak knows which son is in front of him?

What do you think of Rivkah’s involvement in all this?

Yaakov will be seen as a trickster from now on. Does he deserve the title? How many times does he lie? Why does he lie?

Look closely to the communication between the members of this family. Does Rivkah tell Yitzchak that the older will serve the younger? Does Yitzchak tell Rivkah he is about to bless Esav? Do the boys tell their parents about the selling of the birthright?



As we look at the story, we know a few things: Rivkah knows who the rightful heir is. The boys have made one of those exchanges that siblings do, and never tell their parents. What is not clear is what Yitzchak knows. There is a lot that is not clear about Yitzchak’s position in all this: is he a victim? A willing participant? Is he really going to die? We know he isn’t, he lives many many years after this.

One of the things that is clear, however, is his preference for Esav, who is favored by Yitzchak early on. Yitzchak appreciated that he was a hunter, in contrast to the homebody that was his brother Yaakov. Esav is more an “adult” than Jacob: he had married and may have already provided Yitzchak and Rivkah with grandchildren. He is also a good cook, besides being a good hunter: for all the lentil stew of Yaakov, it is Rivkah who prepares the meal, since she knows how Yitzchak likes it, and clearly Yaakov does not. But as favored as he can be, his choice of wives makes both Rivkah and Yitzchak unhappy.

Rivkah, overhearing the request for a wild animal, takes the driver seat. Yaakov does not seem to have a moral quandary – he worries only about what the consequences might be if he gets found out. He does depend on Rivkah for the preparation of the meal. I am not an expert, but I am going to guess that it is hard to make goat meat taste the same as wild game.

It is Rivkah that I am most impressed by in this scene. Not only does she solve the second problem quickly and easily, she demonstrates that she is willing to put everything on the line to do what she sees as God’s will. When Yaakov is worried that he will be cursed– a natural fear given the circumstances– Rivkah is willing to step up and say, “let the curse fall on me”. She has courage and conviction – even though we might be uncomfortable with what she is doing with them. If Yitzchak curses his son, Rivkah agrees to take the curse on herself. That suggests that her motivation is not selfish, but rather something that she does for the long-term good. Yaakov’s motivations are never so altruistic.

Let’s look at Yaakov. He lies three times at least, if you don’t count the dressing up as a lie. So he does seem to deserve the trickster title, and it is seen as ‘just deserts’ by some commentators the fact that he will be the one tricked over and over by Lavan. It is hard to like him.

Yitzchak seems to be fooled, but we are never so sure. With the verse “the hands are the hands of Esav, but the voice is the voice of Yaakov” one could see him as playing along. Rashi will tell us that Yaakov cannot but give himself away – he can’t speak the way his brother does to his father.

קֽוּם־נָ֣א שְׁבָ֗ה וְאָכְלָה֙ מִצֵּידִ֔י (27:19) Please get up and sit, and eat of  my game.

How did you find it so quickly?

הִקְרָ֛ה ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לְפָנָֽי׃ (27:20) Ad-nai your God made it come to me.

To this, Rashi comments, bringing a midrash: Isaac said to himself, “It is not Esau’s way to mention the name of God so readily, and this one says, “Because Ad-nai your God caused it thus to happen to me!

It is Rashi who will, time and again, try to clean up Yaakov’s act, showing that Yaakov chose his language carefully so as not to lie (Click here). It is Rashi and many midrashim who show Yaakov as a simple bookworm, sitting in the tents, learning. I find this a little farfetched given their birth: Yaakov is already grasping the heel, and when he sees an opportunity, he buys the birthright. So he is trying, even though he is not as strong or mature as his older brother, to grasp the first place.

And maybe that is why Yitzchak plays along: he realizes how far Yaakov is willing to go to get this blessing.

The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 19th century) proposes a different vision for Yitzchak: he wants the brothers to get along, to share. He’d rather bless Esau with birkat haaretz (the blessing of the land) – physical plenitude and mastery over the physical world and bless Yaakov with birkat Avraham (the blessing of Avraham) which Yaakov actually receives when he goes to Lavan’s house. That was the blessing that Avraham received ensuring that his descendants would be God’s chosen nation (28:3-4, we did not read this in the triennial). Yitzchak had no reason to think that one of his sons would be rejected. He believed they would both lead this chosen nation as partners, with Esav mastering the physical world and Yaakov carrying on the spiritual legacy. (See Haamek Davar ad loc, click here for the text)

It’s Rivkah that knows this can’t be, because of her prior knowledge of “the older will serve the younger.” And Rivkah is also the sister of Lavan. She will send her preferred son to learn from Lavan, maybe to become the adult that Esav already is – there, away from the house. Maybe she realizes that Yaakov does not have the space to develop into the grand destiny of that prophecy.

Notice that Rivkah had already received Avraham’s blessing (from her own family) to have descendants by the “thousands and tens of thousands . . . to gain possession of the gates of their enemies” (Gen. 24:60). That is a repetition of the blessing given by God to Avraham at the end of the akeda. “Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies” (22:17). And as I said, will be the blessing given to Yaakov at the end of our reading.

Something that has always bothered me is that in the scroll, Rivkah is called a “na’ar” (a masculine form for an unmarried person at marriageable age) four times when she is introduced (see 24:16,28,55,57 – click here) and she is never called using the feminine form “na’ar’ah.” We read it as na’arah, “maiden”, and that is how we translate it. But that is not what is written. The use of the masculine for her, four times, implies that this is not a mistake but a decision of some sort. And maybe this is a way of signaling that that she gets the mission to carry the blessing, not her husband, in a very patriarchal society. It fits in her general sketch: she is beautiful, but strong – remember watering the camels? And once she puts something in her head, she will see through it (there are 10 camels, 40 gallons per camel, 8 pounds a gallon, you make the math.)

This is what I think is the detail we have to pay attention in this story, and this is definitely a lesson we can take home: the couple does not talk about their hopes for the kids. The kids don’t talk about their internal exchange with the parents. It really appears that Rivkah never told Yitzchak of the encounter with God, which is very odd for expectant parents. And this is what is important: the secrecy is what makes this story happen, and all its eventual heartache – what Rivkah says will be “but a few days” will become 21 years of separation.

Shabbat Shalom.




Toldot ~ Lying, truth and consequences (story)

Unlike the stories I usually tell, which might be true might not, this one actually happened. It was told to me by one of my teachers, rabbi Ed Feinstein, who was the actual rabbi in this story.

This happened in the late eighties early nineties. Grandpa got sick. With cancer. But the entire family knew that he was simply terrified of the word cancer. They came to ask the rabbi whether they could tell him he had another disease, something else. after all, the doctors had given a prognosis of only a few months, six at best, but the family feared that knowing that he had cancer would make Grandpa give up and despair.

Sure, said the rabbi. No need to tell the truth.So the family did not tell Gramps, but took him to doctor appointments, he took the medicine and things were going fine. More than fine. He passed the six-month mark of survival. And then a whole year passed. Grandpa was ok, maybe not 100% but ok.

When Grandpa crossed the 15-month mark, the doctor was pretty amazed. But then…

Then a nephew, who was not part of the first conversation because he lived in a different part of the country, came for a visit. And told Grandpa the truth. Grandpa died three weeks later.

~ The question that I’d like us to discuss: How does this lie relate – or not – to the lie that Rivkah (Rebbecah) and Ya’akov (Jacob) concoct in our reading? Let’s explore the motivations of each of them. How similar/dissimilar are they?

An eternal quest(ion) – What is prayer?

To pray is to take notice of wonder, to regain a sense of mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.

(in: The Wisodm of Heschel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975, p 205)

Yosseleh the Holy Miser

[I first heard this story from Reb Mimi Feigelson, who heard it from Reb Shlomo Carlibach z”l. I found later another version that connects the Holy Miser with Rav Yom Tov Lipman Heller tzz”l, a hero of mine due to the stories around his commentary to the Mishnah, the Tosfot Yom Tov. You can learn more about him by clicking here. ]

Around 1600, there lived in Kracow, a very important rabbi, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller. In that same town, Kracow, there lives a very rich Jew, the greatest miser in the world. He had no family. His name was Yosseleh.

Back then, in Cracow everybody was poor, downhearted, depressed and heartbroken. There was only that one Jew who had a lot of money: Yosseleh the Miser. All rabbis had tried to get him to part with a few coins, but no matter how much they begged, asked, threatened, the answer was always no.

You know, our rabbis teach us a sinner is not anti-God. A person who sins just doesn’t do God’s will. But a miser is anti-God, because God is giving, but a miser only takes. A miser is not part of the world.

And that is how Yosseleh became an outcast. Kids would throw stones at him on the street. They would point and laugh at him. No one would ever say Good Shabbos to him and in trying to get him to give money they even stopped giving him honors in shul. But it was to no avail.

One day, the Chevra Kaddisha, the burial society, was told Yossaleh is dying.

They went to his bedside and they said,”Yossaleh, you can’t take the money with you anyway. Give us 1,000 rubles and we will bury you, and, we will give the money to the poor which you neglected all your life.” Leave it to Yossaleh though, he said: “No, this week I cannot give more than 50 rubles.” The people were so disgusted with him, they said you can’t take it with you anyway! Once in your life, give some money to the poor!

Yossalah insists and he refuses to give more than 50 rubles and the burial society members told him in that case, we refuse to bury you. He said to them, “I don’t mind. I’ll bury myself.” It was too ugly. The members got up to leave and at that moment, Yossaleh said the Shema, and his soul left the world. The Chevra was just disgusted – and left him there.

He died Sunday night – no one buried him. Monday, Tuesday passed. Tuesday night, a neighbor thought it was not fair to his wife and children, they were afraid of Yosseleh’s ghost. He must be buried. So, late at night – for the neighbor was more afraid of his other neighbors than of the ghost, you see, the neighbor was afraid to upset the community – late at night he loaded Yosseleh’s light, small body on the wagon and dug a grave for him near a lonely tree, in the back of the cemetery, in the area for the paupers. He threw him in and covered him with earth and left.

Late Thursday night, a poor man knocked on Rav Yom Tov Lipman Heller’s door and said, “Rabbi, please give me money to buy food for Shabbos.” Rav Yom Tov Heller says, “I’ll be glad to. Why tonight? I have never seen you before. How did you make out last Shabbos?” “Rav Yom Tov,” he said, “for the past twenty years, I can’t make a living, but every Thursday morning there were five rubles left in an envelope under my broken door. But not this morning.”

Five minutes later the local schoolteacher knocked on his door and said, “Rabbi Heller, please give me money to buy food for Shabbos.” “I’ll be glad to, but where were you last week?” He says, “Rav, the truth is that for the last ten years, I can’t make a living, but every Thursday morning, there were two rubles under my broken door. But not this morning.” Within hours, all the poor people in Cracow came and told the same story.

And then all the rabbis of Cracow got together and all were sharing the same story. Out of the woodwork, from nowhere, poor people were coming asking for money. They had never seen anything like this. And that is when they realized who was keeping all those people alive, for more than twenty years. Can you imagine? Yosseleh the Miser.

Rav Yom Tov Heller asked the poor people, “I don’t understand, how come to you he gave five rubles, to you two and to you, ten, and how did he know where you lived? The most unbelievable thing was revealed to him.

Once in their life, every poor person thought that he could get through to Yossaleh, the only man who has money in Cracow. He or she would visit Yossaleh. Yossaleh would open his door with so much love and so much understanding. “Come in, sit down.” He took a piece of paper and a pencil and would say. “What is your name, my friend?”

“I am Avramaleh, the watercarrier.” Or Sarah, the teacher. Or Meilech, the streetsweeper.

“How many children do you have?”
“Twelve? Oh, you must be starving to death. My heart is bleeding for you. What do you need to survive?”
“Oh, Yossaleh, if you could give me five rubles a week?”
“Where do you live my friend?” He would write everything down and say thank you so much for visiting me. He would speak for a long time about everything in the world. But suddenly, Yossaleh would go crazy. He would simply begin screaming for the person to get out! Get Out! What do you think? Do you think I am crazy, do you think I would give you my precious money? Get away! Don’t you ever come back!”

And then Meilech, Shlomo, Avrum, Sarah would go back to their houses and say to their partner and children, “What they say is right, he is crazy.” But, the next Thursday, under the broken door, there was an envelope with five rubles. And the next week, and the week after that. Predictable and constant, two days before every Shabbat and every festival.

And that story was repeated over and over again. The interview, the long talk, the loving listening and then the sudden crazy bout, and the money, without missing a week, every Thursday, under the door, first thing in the morning. Yosseleh probably came, Rav Yom Tov Heller reasoned, at night, when everyone was asleep.

Rav Yom Tov Heller was so broken. They didn’t even bury him! The holy of holiest! Not only does he gave, he gave like God gives. He announced a fast day for the whole city. Everybody came, especially the poor people who lived from him for all those years. All those same people whose children were throwing stones at Yosseleh, those who mocked him and spoke evil. All were crying in the synagogue. Yosseleh, Yosseleh, please forgive us. Please forgive us wherever you are. It was just about sundown and the fast day was over. Rav Yom Tov Heller felt they hadn’t gotten Yosseleh’s forgiveness yet, but he went home, and slept. He had a dream.

In his dream, he saw Yossaleh. And Yosseleh said, “Rav Yom Tov Heller, please, please, tell all my brothers and sisters to go home. There is no reason to fast. This is the way I wanted it. I wanted to have the privilege to give like God gives – without anybody knowing. Please, tell all my friends, especially the poor people. I am here in Heaven… yet, there is one thing I still miss. I’d give anything for another Thursday at 1 AM, for another door, for another envelope with five rubles to give away in honor of the holy Shabbos or Yomtev.”

Rav Yom Tov Lipman Heller woke up. Then, he had a new stone carved for Yossele saying “Holy Miser”, and requested that when he died he be buried right next to Yossele, the Holy Miser, and you can travel to Kracow and seen them both at rest together to this day.

In memory of Lynn Bennett z”l

 Here are the sources for our study in memory of Adath Israel’s beloved teacher Lynn Bennett z”l, as well as a summary of the points raised by all those who were there.

Taanit 24a

The Gemara relates a similar incident. Rav happened to come to a certain place where he decreed a fast but rain did not come. The prayer leader descended to lead the service before him and recited: “God Who makes the wind blow”, and the wind blew. He continued and said: And “Who makes the rain fall”, and the rain came. Rav said to him: What are your good deeds to merit such a quick answer to your prayers? He answered: I am a teacher of children, and I teach Torah to the children of the poor as to the children of the rich, and if there is anyone who cannot pay, I do not take anything from that family. And I have a fishpond, and any child who neglects the studies, I bribe the child with the fish and calm the child down, and soothe the child until they come and read.


רב איקלע לההוא אתרא גזר תעניתא ולא אתא מיטרא נחית קמיה שליחא דצבורא אמר משיב הרוח ונשב זיקא אמר מוריד הגשם ואתא מיטרא אמר ליה מאי עובדך אמר ליה מיקרי דרדקי אנא ומקרינא לבני עניי כבני עתירי וכל דלא אפשר ליה לא שקלינא מיניה מידי ואית לי פירא דכוורי וכל מאן דפשע משחדינא ליה מינייהו ומסדרינן ליה ומפייסינן ליה עד דאתי וקרי

This is what Lynn z”l would do: she met everyone at their level without prejudging them at all. She was able to fire up everyone for Hebrew School, and make kids and parents feel welcome. Many young families came to Hebrew School through Lynn’s z”l Mazal Tots program.

Taanit 7a

Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Why are Torah matters likened to a tree, as it is stated: “It is a tree of life to them who lay hold upon it” (Proverbs 3:18)? This verse comes to tell you that just as a small piece of wood can ignite a large piece, so too, minor Torah students can sharpen adults. And this is what Rabbi Ḥanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them.

אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק למה נמשלו דברי תורה כעץ שנאמר (משלי ג, יח) עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה לומר לך מה עץ קטן מדליק את הגדול אף תלמידי חכמים קטנים מחדדים את הגדולים והיינו דאמר ר’ חנינא הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי ומתלמידי יותר מכולן

Lynn z”l also learned from the students, she loved teaching and learning.

Pirkei Avot 4:1

Ben Zoma said:Who is wise? He who learns from every person, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding” (Psalms 119:99). Who is mighty? He who subdues his [evil] inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city” (Proverbs 16:3). Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper” (Psalms 128:2) “You shall be happy” in this world, “and you shall prosper” in the world to come. Who is he that is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings as it is said: “For I honor those that honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored” (I Samuel 2:30).

בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קיט) מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי כִּי עֵדְוֹתֶיךָ שִׂיחָה לִּי. אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי טז) טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם מִגִּבּוֹר וּמשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ מִלֹּכֵד עִיר. אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קכח) יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ, בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. וְטוֹב לָךְ, לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמואל א ב) כִּי מְכַבְּדַי אֲכַבֵּד וּבֹזַי יֵקָלּוּ:

Lynn z”l loved her portion: her family, her friends, her grandchildren and her community. She saved every little thing thinking of possibilities to do with them: containers, every thing.


Siddur Ashkenaz, Kaddish, Kaddish Yatom

(1) Mourner: Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba: [cong. Amen.]

(2) Mourner: b’alma di-v’ra chirutei, v’yamlich malchutei b’chayeichon uvyomeichon uvchayei d’chol beit yisrael, ba’agala uvizman kariv, v’im’ru: “amen.” [cong. Amen.]

(3) Cong. and mourner: Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach l’alam ul’almei almaya.

(4) Mourner: Yitbarach v’yishtabach, v’yitpa’ar v’yitromam v’yitnaseh, v’yithadar v’yit’aleh v’yit’halal sh’mei d’kud’sha, b’rich hu, [cong. b’rich hu.]

(5) Mourner: l’eila min-kol-birchata v’shirata, tushb’chata v’nechemata da’amiran b’alma, v’im’ru: “amen.” [cong. Amen.]

(6) Mourner: Y’hei shlama raba min-sh’maya v’chayim aleinu v’al-kol-yisrael, v’im’ru: “amen.” [cong. Amen.]

(7) Mourner: Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol-yisrael, v’imru: “amen.” [cong. Amen.]


(א) אבל: יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא. [קהל: אמן]

(ב) בְּעָלְמָא דִּי בְרָא כִרְעוּתֵהּ וְיַמְלִיךְ מַלְכוּתֵהּ בְּחַיֵּיכון וּבְיומֵיכון וּבְחַיֵּי דְכָל בֵּית יִשרָאֵל בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב, וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן: [קהל: אמן]

(ג) קהל ואבל: יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא:

(ד) אבל: יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִשְׁתַּבַּח וְיִתְפָּאַר וְיִתְרומַם וְיִתְנַשּא וְיִתְהַדָּר וְיִתְעַלֶּה וְיִתְהַלָּל שְׁמֵהּ דְּקֻדְשָׁא. בְּרִיךְ הוּא. [קהל: בריך הוא:]

(ה) לְעֵלָּא מִן כָּל בִּרְכָתָא בעשי”ת: לְעֵלָּא לְעֵלָּא מִכָּל וְשִׁירָתָא תֻּשְׁבְּחָתָא וְנֶחֱמָתָא דַּאֲמִירָן בְּעָלְמָא. וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן: [קהל: אמן]

(ו) יְהֵא שְׁלָמָא רַבָּא מִן שְׁמַיָּא וְחַיִּים עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל. וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן: [קהל: אמן]

(ז) עוֹשה שָׁלוֹם בעשי”ת: הַשָּׁלום בִּמְרומָיו הוּא יַעֲשה שָׁלום עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן: [קהל: אמן]

 How are we going to continue? By continuing her spirit, each and everyone of us moving our school forward, making it ever better, as Lynn z”l would have wanted. Every one of us inspired by her example and aware of her love for Judaism and Adath Israel.

Your stuff or your soul? ~ Lech Lecha 5781

Summary (read the portion by clicking here):

Lech Lecha is the portion where the first couple is introduced. At the beginning they are still called Sarai and Avram, and at the end of the portion they have their names changed to Sarah and Avraham.

The text refuses to give you a reason for Avram being chosen, and all the stories you know about it (that Avram smashes his father’s idols; that he sees the world on fire and so on) are all midrashim [read them by clicking here and here]. They are not present in the Torah text. Very important difference.

As we read this portion, we have the following arc: Avram continues the travel to the land that God will show him, together with Sarai and Lot. There is a famine and Avram goes down to Egypt, where he pretends Sarai is his sister; she’s taken to Pharao’s palace and they eventually get out. Avram is very rich by then, and so Lot and he need to separate since the land can’t sustain all their herds. Lot choses to live in Sodom. Then a war breaks between four kings against five, and the king of Sodom is one of them. Lot is taken captive and Avram sets out to take Lot back, vanquishing the four kings.

After that incident, comes one of the most obscure passages in Avram’s life, the covenant between the pieces. Both the war and the covenant are in our triennial reading.

The portion will end with Sarai making Avram and Hagar conceive Ishmael, just to have Isaac promised to her 13 years later, as God changes Avram’s and Sarai’s names to Avraham and Sarah and getting Avraham to circumcise himself and all the males in his household.


My question for us today is: How do you understand what happens after the war, between Avram, the king of Sodom and this priest called Melchitzedek? The destruction of Sodom hasn’t happened yet, but is there something foreshadowing it? If this is one of Avram’s tests – remember, our tradition recons ten tests for Avram – what is the test? Do you think he passed it?

[There are different opinions of how to count the tests. Everyone agrees that sending Yishmael away and the Binding of Isaac were tests, as was Sarai in the court of Pharaoh, the war, and circumcision. Some count the act of going out; some count a faceoff with Nimrod that happened in a midrash; some count facing famine in the promised land and having to go down to Egypt, some count having Hagar as a second wife, some count sending both Hagar and Yishmael away, some count Sarah with Avimelech, some count the covenant between the pieces itself, some count standing up for Sodom and Gomorrah, some count Sarah’s burial. Click here for list one, two, three, four]


So I want to point out that the idea of dissention and war appears strongly in this moment of Avram’s life. Just before the war we read the separation between Avram and his nephew, because the land can’t support all their herds, and the herdsmen fight. At that moment we see a different side of Avram, a side that the midrash will say is how the world is sustained: by those who do not engage in a quarrel, and do not let discord become a fight. Avram lets Lot make the choice: if you go left I will go right, if you go right I will go left, let us just not fight.

Which is a deep contrast with Avram in the very next chapter: the war breaks, an unnamed survivor tells Avram that Lot has been taken captive, in a series of five active verbs in two sentences, Avram liberates all those who are captive [here’s a map] [here are tar pits, I find them fascinating]. Once he does that the king of Sodom and the King of Shalem – previously unmentioned – come to meet Avram. The King of Shalem, who moonlights as a priest of El Elyion, God Most High, blesses Avram who gives him a donation. It is at this junction that the King of Sodom asks Avram for the persons, but not the possessions. And Avram refuses the possessions.

If we are going to see the arc of the story of Avram and possessions, we see how central possessions were up to this moment, and still are in the Covenant of the Pieces. Avram gets financially comfortable out of the lie that Sarai is his sister at the beginning of the story, and his possessions keep growing from then on. At this point maybe he has come to a place of understanding that possessions matter little if you don’t go after your principles – in this case, liberating Lot and the rest of the people from a life of slavery most probably. The text says: “Lot, the women and the rest of the people.”

In that sense we can understand the dispute with Lot and then the war as Avram growing into the realization that stuff matters less than relationships and people.

The Chasidic commentators will make sure that we read the text closely – the King of Sodom says:

תֶּן־לִ֣י הַנֶּ֔פֶשׁ וְהָרְכֻ֖שׁ קַֽח־לָֽךְ

Literally: Give me the soul, and the possessions take for yourself

That Sodom was a bad place we will be informed in the next portion, but you and I know that places and countries don’t turn bad suddenly. Just like milk begins to sour, and the taste becomes acid before a full blown curdling, there is a process for people and cities and countries. If you chose to read the text in its basic Hebrew, you have a king asking for the people back in exchange for things. And Avram not willing to see himself as a bounty hunter of sorts, a paid militia, but as someone who did this because it was the right thing to do.

But if you want to read it in a symbolic way, what is the King asking? Your soul for the money. Give me the soul. Your soul. Which is to say: “Stay stuck in the concept of possessions, of amassing things, and your soul will be mine.” The King of Sodom is seen as the symbol of the impulse for selfishness, for thinking only about ourselves, for wanting to have stuff instead of being and becoming good people.

It is not anymore “your money or your life” – it is your money or your very soul. Your essence. And it is by saying – I am my values, I am on the side of anti-slavery, I want freedom for the people and for myself that Avram merits the next step – the vision of the Covenant Between the Pieces.

The covenant between the pieces, which has this name because Avram has to split the bodies of certain animals, is laden with symbolic meaning. So laden that already many commentators see this as a dream, and not a prophetic vision – in part because of the image of the torch passing through the pieces.

After promising that Avram will have an innumerable quantity of descendants – the number of stars – God then asks five different animals of Avram. All of them kosher, three of them need to be meshulash, which is rendered as “three-year old”. And after slaughtering the animals, he has to cut the big ones in two pieces. So notice the number pattern already: two, three, five. And as one vulture comes down – God talks about Avram’s descendants, who will stay in Egypt for four hundred years. This is such an important moment that it figures in the Hagaddah: it was said that our slavery was going to happen. And the same way it was promised, its end was promised and again – here is the presence of possessions. The descendants will come out with “rechush gadol”, many possessions.

And I think the question that this story is asking us is – have we resolved our relationship with possessions? How do we respond, we, here, today, in an America that gives us a fairly comfortable life, how do we respond, as descendants of Avraham, to the question: your soul or your stuff?

Rabbi Yosi and the student from Great Snoring

Rabbi Yosi and the student from Great Snoring (based on Bereshit Rabbah 34:15, read the original by clicking here)

Rabbi Yosi was an excellent teacher. There was no child he could not inspire. No child he could not make love the Torah. No child he could not make see the greatness of the Jewish tradition and instill pride and desire to learn more. No child that is, until Natan came along.

Natan was the worse student in the academy. His mind seemed coated in a fact-repellant oil. He wasn’t  a bad kid, he was quiet and compliant. But he had no friends, and simply wasn’t there. He was always looking through the window. The other teachers in the academy had tried their best, but with no success whatsoever.

Rabbi Yosi was patient. He explained the same verse once, twice, three times, ten times. Nothing. Natan simply couldn’t absorb anything.

Rabbi Yosi asked: “Natan, why can’t you learn? Why do you look at the window so much? Where are you from?

Natan answered: “Me? Rabbi, I’m from Great Snoring. I miss it deeply and can’t think of anything but how much I’m not from here”

Rabbi Yosi contained his desire to laugh. Great Snoring was like Chelm, you know, the place where people make jokes about. They said that it was so far away that you would grow old before reaching it. They said it was so hot that even the camels couldn’t stand it. They said it was so dry that they marked Great Snoring with a mount of sand on the map. They said that in Great Snoring you had to speak with your mouth closed so that the flies wouldn’t get in. And that, of course, even the babies snored in Great Snoring.

“Oh”, said Rabbi Yosi, “tell me, why do you like Great Snoring so much?”

“Great Snoring is the grandest of places! It is warm and sandy. I never need to wear so many layers as I do here! The dorm is so cold and damp. Great Snoring is warm. People there care for each other and help each other in the dry season. My people are smart too! They even figured out that if you smear the heads of the newborns with paste of dried red figs, the flies don’t bother the newborns. Here, when others talk to me, it is just to make jokes about my town. There I had real friends. Here, everyone is buzzing talking about each other, there the only buzzing was the flies.”

This was more than Natan had said in the entire year. So Rabbi Yosi started asking Natan, every day, for stories about Great Snoring, and did he have stories! And bit by bit Natan began improving. He stopped looking at the window so much, and even made a few friends. And that is how rabbi Yosi said: “Blessed is the One who makes any place be loved by those born there.”

Natan became a good student. Eventually he returned to Great Snoring and became a teacher himself. And he never forgot Rabbi Yosi.

Noach, the raven and the dove

As I read the Torah text, I’d ask you to pay attention to verses 8:5 to 8:15 [click here], which bring the birds that Noach sends out, just before coming out of the ark. What do you make of which birds are sent, and how the text describes them? If they are symbols, what do they symbolize?

How do you understand the end of Noach?



So let’s just pay attention to the fact that the distinction between the dove and the raven could not be greater. The raven is always black – with the exception of albinism – and the dove is multicolor, in most people’s minds it is white. What the Western tradition does with the image of the dove coming back with a leaf branch is amazing – it becomes almost a universal symbol of peace. In the text it is not so clear that that is the case. The raven, thanks to Edgar Alan Poe, becomes a symbol for all that is mysterious and spooky. In the text this is also not clear.


What is pretty clear is that the raven merits just one verse:

וַיְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־הָֽעֹרֵ֑ב Noach sends the raven and it goes back and forth until the waters dry up.

Now if you read the Hebrew carefully, regarding the dove there is an added word: וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מֵאִתּ֑וֹ

He sent the dove from himself, me-ito. And there is more, there is a mission given to the dove: to see whether the water had decreased from the earth. And then we have a much longer description of a relationship, really: the dove goes back and forth, since it can’t find a resting place. So Noach waits another 7 days, and sends the dove again. And the dove brings the famous olive branch. And the text is very clear, repeating on both occasions a word that does not get translated: elav, the dove returns to him. And Noach waits yet another seven days, sends the dove again, and when the dove does not come back, and Noach knows it is time for himself to look – and the ground is drying. But he waits another month and 27 days inside, until God tells Noach to get out.

I find quite interesting that Noach is so scared that he does not really want to look. Then I think we can understand a bit this sending of the raven and then the dove. The raven, apparently, is going back and forth on its own, while the dove needs to be sent out every time.

Jewish tradition does not take kindly to the raven. The raven is not a kosher species, and so the rabbis in the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 108b will judge it in relation to the dove: kosher birds want to stay with the tzadikim, the righteous, and that is why the dove needs to be sent every time. The raven, on the other hand, is the one species that does not accept the ban on reproduction in the ark, according to that same piece in the Talmud. And how do we know there was a ban? Because when they get in Noach family is separated by gender, and when they get out they are not.

The raven is the only one that reproduces in the ark, according to the rabbis. If you are going to count every instance of how long the ordeal of the flood took, you might be surprised: the total time Noach spends in there sums 444 days. And this is without Netflix, internet and cellphones. So the raven opposes the reproduction ban, and again according to the rabbis in Sanhedrin accuses Noach of wanting Mrs. Raven for himself.

Many species of doves are monogamous. But all species of ravens and corvids are monogamous as well [click here to know more], and will defend their mate no matter the cost. In that sense we can understand the worry – and even jealousy – of the raven.

So let’s go back to the question of symbols: the dove represents repentance, teshuvah, hope, goodness, calm love and peace. It is the symbol of repentance due to the Book of Yonah, which we read on Yom Kippur, and also because of its flight, that goes up and down. No wonder Noach want it back to him every time.

Imagine that the raven is up for grabs, despite Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, which clouds a lot of American sensitivities towards this very intelligent animal [click here to see what ravens are capable of! And here too].

The Chasidic master Itzchak Leyner of Itzbicza, or Mei HaShiloach, affirms that the raven is the symbol of anger. He understands that Noach sends out the raven as a symbol of sending out the anger from the remaining existence. The idea is that the world had gone through a purification process, and that Noach understood that anger and violence were the causes of the destruction. The raven, as a symbol of anger, is sent out. But it does not disappear, it comes back and forth.

The Mei HaShiloach believes that this is because anger is still needed in the world. When an individual feels the desire to do something wrong, he says, that person can get angry at herself or himself, and then put the desire away, conquering that impulse. Anger, the Mei haShiloach says, can be very useful.

It is in that usefulness that the raven shows up in another story. The main character that is going to be helped by a raven is the prophet Elijah, beloved of the seder table and the brit milah. You might not know this, but Queen Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah the prophet, and so he hides in a cave. Ravens bring bread to him. And that is the other symbol of the raven – the raven, according to a midrash, knew that God needed it for this much more important errand, and so wanted to be ready. So ravens can be the symbol of readiness, preparedness, the desire of being consequential in the world.

Anger, in that sense, is a hint to our base desires – just like the raven. Because of our desire to be consequential, to live meaningful lives, is also important. Anger can get out of control, and Noach himself experiences that at the end of his story.

The end of Noach is painful to watch. He drinks himself to stupor. If you understand Noach as a survivor of trauma, it is not so surprising that he drinks to forget. He and his family have been inside the ark for so long that Noach has to send the birds first – he cannot bear to look for himself at the destruction, which he probably imagines is great. And he refuses to get out of the ark. God has to call him out. And even when he is out, just imagine what he saw. Sure, most flesh was decomposed after 444 days in water, but the bones are certainly still there. Just imagine the vision.

It is with no surprise that he becomes drunk. Survivors of trauma that did not do the work to transcend and conquer the scars of trauma are in a very likely to become drug and alcohol abusers. And I want to say that his son, that does something to his father of obviously sexual nature, is also reacting as survivors of trauma might – not using alcohol or drugs to dull the pain, but using sex instead. And the end, in which Noach curses his own grandchild, not even the son who did the thing to him, but his own grandson, shows to us how destructive anger can become and spill out through generations, perpetuating the cycle of trauma.

So part of the sending of the raven, which is Noach’s desire for a world without anger, according to the Mei Hashiloach, is beautiful – but Noach did not send anger away from himself. He did not work on his own trauma, and so becomes a victim of it.

And so here is the lesson I see in this story this week: it is not enough to want to make the world a better place. We have to make ourselves better people too. It is not enough to want to send anger away from the world, we have to work on our anger as well. Then maybe we will be able to both become better people and make this world a better place, and not become victims of it.

Shabbat Shalom


Stories about prayer

The portion of this week, Noach, carries a hint about prayer:

“make an ark for yourself” (Genesis 6:14) – which is understood as make a word for yourself. In Hebrew, TEIVAH is both “word” and “ark”. How we construct our words is then a quest of everyone – what do you say to people, how we say those words, what we say to God and how we pray.

The Watchman

Reb Naftali of Ropshitz met a watchman making his rounds and asked him, “For whom are you working?” After answering, the man turned to the rabbi and inquired, “And you, for whom are you working?” The Ropshitzer was thunderstruck. He walked alongside the man for a bit and then asked him, “Will you work for me?” “Yes,” the man responded, “I should like to, but what would be my duties?” “To remind me,” responded Reb Naphtali, “to remind me.”

~ the question contained in this story is: how do you remind yourself to be connected to God? What will you do?

A Little Milk

Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz walked into his kitchen one morning before prayers, and complained to the womenfolk who were busy there:” “For all my efforts don’t I deserve a little bit of milk?”

At that time Reb Asher, his son-in-law, had not yet learned to plumb the profundity of the rebbe’s words, and it bothered him that his father-in-law should become so irritated with other people. “This is no way to talk to people in the house! I’ll have to rebuke him about this” he thought to himself.

Just at that moment a woman came along to the tzaddik and sobbed out her plaint: “Rebbe, please help me, I haven’t enough milk with which to nurse my twin babies!”

“Go back to your home, my good woman,” he answered, “and the Almighty will help you.” And he gave her a blessing and comforting words.

Reb Asher was distracted from the little incident, and forgot the idea of rebuke.

A few weeks later Rabbi Naftali entered the kitchen, slammed the table and screamed another angry complaint: “So I’m already given a bit of milk, it’s all watery. Haven’t I earned some good nourishing milk for all my work?”

“This time,” thought Reb Asher, “I will not keep silent. In fact I will rebuke him twice, a holy man like himself losing his temper over such trifles!”

Again his thoughts were interrupted by the bitter weeping of the same woman, who had just entered.

“Rebbe!” she cried to Rabbi Naftali. “Thank God I now have milk to give my little ones – but it’s like water, and the babies are as skinny as sticks! Won’t you pray and ask the Holy One to bless me with good milk?”

“My good woman,” said the tzaddik, “return home to your babies. God will help you and you will have good milk.” And he gave her a blessing and comforting words.

A few weeks later, the twins, strong and healthy, were the happiness of the neighborhood. And Reb Asher began to understand how reb Naftali worked, and Reb Naftali’s relationship to God: a Friend.

~ This story asks us not to judge others harshly, and to remember that prayer is about others – relieving them of suffering and pain, offering a hand when we’re able and a blessing if we’re capable.


Biographical note:

Rabbi Naftali of Rofshitz (1760-1827) became known for his sharp wit and humor and his elusive shining aphorisms. Some of his teachings are collected in his works, Zera Kodesh, Ayalah Sheluchah, and Imrei Shefer. Many stories about him appear in the book, Ohel Naftali.

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