As more and more information becomes available about the storming of the Capitol on Wednesday, not just about the violence, the victims and participants but also about the details of those harrowing hours, I would like to share a few thoughts.
The first one has to do with the images of observant Jews, some in kippot and tzitzit, some in skirts and snoods, participating in this. They were engaging in a demonstration to overturn the government’s basic institutions, a demonstration that had violent ends, proven by the presence of a noose erected outside. One of the most important principles in Jewish Law is Dina DeMalchuta Dina – which means literally, the rule of the land is the rule. We obey the laws of the land. Examples abound: paying taxes, speeding or using banned substances – Jews should obey all those laws, and every other law enacted by the government. All the more so this principle applies to violence.
Dina DeMalchuta Dina is only supposed to be crossed if the government is forcing Jews to stop observing Jewish law. One example would be if the government forbade circumcision – then we keep doing circumcision, even if it means travelling with the infant to a nearby country that permits circumcision, as it is the case with our Kenyan brothers and sisters, who travel to Uganda. But even such a case does not give permission to try to overthrow a government using violence.
The noose outside also hinted at executions, without what we would call a due process, of those considered enemies by the leaders of this mob. In more stark terms, lynching was not outside of the imaginary of those perpetrating loudly the storming the capital, or those supporting it silently. Again, there is no such a thing in Jewish law: even murderers get their day in court. Eichmann did. There was a process, witnesses, defense and prosecution. Lynching has never ever been condoned in Jewish thought and Jewish law.
Let’s talk about violence. And destruction. Destruction of public property has no place in Jewish thought. Cutting fruit trees in times of war is forbidden. Even destruction of your personal property is forbidden, unless there is a higher purpose – an upcycling of the materials: you can dismantle a table to make chairs, or reform a building, or building something. But not as an expression of rage, anger and violence. In the Jewish ethos, even necessary violence, ie, war, has its constraints.
For starters, wars of aggression, which are began to conquer territory, are not permitted nowadays given the lack of a king in Israel, and the fact that the Sanhedrin is not in existence. We are supposed to engage in defensive wars only. Moreover, even in secular terms, the Israeli army in its code of ethics, called “Ruach Tzahal”, affirms the values of human dignity for all humans, purity of arms and democracy.
It deeply disturbed me, and I am sure that some of you saw the pictures too: it appears that there were people wearing t-shirts with an acronym 6MWE which stands for ‘6 million wasn’t enough’, it is certain that there were people wearing t-shirts with “Camp Auschwitz.” It strikes me as profoundly naïve that Jews, observant or secular, were hand in hand with people sporting those, as they storm or support storming the seat of the government. Our history has shown that antisemitism finds its breeding ground in extremism, and for those sporting those shirts there are no “good Jews.”
The pictures of an Israeli flag and a confederate flag flying side by side were also upsetting for a similar, complementary reason. Degel Israel, the Israeli flag, was based on a tallit, the symbol of God’s presence. That is the same God that affirms, in Genesis, “let’s make humans in Our image.” Not Jews, not Whites, not Blacks, Asians or Natives. But “humans.” All humans. And the confederate flag stands for the right of reducing certain humans to chattel. The Israeli flag reminds us of our own 2,000-year landlessness. It reminds us of our being vulnerable, of our longing for freedom. It should be a modern articulation of a prophetic promise: that we, all Jews, rose from slavery, exclusion and oppression to champion the values of justice and compassion articulated by the prophets to the entire world.
The attack in the Capitol has been called many names by many people. One that I have not seen yet is desecration, which I think it fits in many levels. The institutions that are “the pride and glory of our country” were desecrated, symbolically, in this attack. Many of the values that we hold dear, because they are the connections between Judaism and America, were desecrated. But above all, core values of Judaism: respect for the rule of law, human dignity, due process, limits to violence, not destroying wantonly, were desecrated, together with our common destiny, were desecrated. Jews, religious or secular, have no place in a destructive and violent mob trying to overthrow seated government.
Rabbi Nelly Altenburger
 Nedarim 28a, Gittin 10b, Baba Kamma 113a-b and other places in the Talmud.
 Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, Negative Commandment 57
 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:1-2. Even if Maimonides accepts the possibility of a war of aggression, notice that he envisions that only in the context of a King being able to convince the 71 judges of the Sanhedrin that this is warranted.
 Prayer for Our Country
Vayishlach is a packed portion, mostly focusing on Yaakov and his road to redemption from being Yaakov to becoming Yisrael. The portion opens with Ya’akov sending messengers to Esav, their encounter and their settling things out. It is in this story that Ya’akov has his struggle with the angel, and is named Yisrael for the first time. Deborah, Rivkah’s nurse, dies. Rachel also dies, giving birth to Benjamin. The portion closes with the line of Esav.
Our triennial focuses on the story of Dinah, which happens just before the deaths of Deborah and Rachel.
As we read the story, I’d like you to think about a few questions:
- Using the text, describe Dina with your own words. What do you imagine is going to be the traditional understanding of Dina?
- If this is a case of rape, what is missing? Could you read this as a case of seduction? What does the simple meaning (pshat) imply regarding Dina’s agency?
- What do you think of Shechem and his actions? What does the text imply about Shechem’s power?
- What are the differences between how the men involved see the episode? How do Yaakov, Chamor and the brothers see what happened?
- How could the brothers do what they did?
The traditional reading of this episode [Genesis 34, read it here] will be influenced by Rashi. Rashi will blame the entire episode on Dina, and of course, her mother Leah. Calling them both yatzanit, goer-out, he points out that were Dina not going out to see the girls of the land, like her mother who goes out to get a night with Ya’akov in exchange of the mandrakes (we saw this last week) nothing would have happened. [Read it here]
Many commentators disagree, but it is important for us to make sure we understand that there is this position in our tradition. The strongest voices against Rashi come from David Kimchi, Abarbanel and Luzzatto.
David Kimchi (Radak, Provence, 1160-1235) admits that were Dina to stay in, nothing would have happened and that that was Leah’s fault. However, he also points out that there is a midrash that looks with askance about Dina in the previous story, the encounter of Yaakov and Esav. In that midrash, Dina was hidden by Yaakov inside a chest, so that Esav would not see Dina, and not request to marry her. (Genesis Rabbah 76:9) The question revolves, too, on the fact that Shechem is not circumcised, whereas Esav was.
Abarbanel (Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel, Portugal, 1437-1508) says that the blame is actually all Yaakov’s. He was the one who decided to buy land there, and pitch the tents near the city. If he was so worried about his daughter, he should have pitched the tents farther away. Moreover, to buy the plot he obviously had to invite Shechem, who saw Dina. He goes on to actually defend Dina’s reputation, saying that Rashi is completely wrong and that Leah was a modest woman, who stayed in the tents – the one going out pasturing sheep is Rachel. And then he adds something else: Dina is the only young woman in that entire household. She has no sisters. And of course, he says, she went out with company – as Moses did when Moses goes to see his father-in-law.
Luzzatto (Shadal, Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865) defends Dina from the accusation of doing anything wrong: he says she just wanted to see the clothes and the women – and this is just what women do, there is nothing wrong. And he adds that, when he saw the Samaritan version of the Torah, it is not written “to see”, lir’ot, but “to instruct”, leharot, leaving us with a higher image of Dina than we would have.
A final voice for this moment in the discussion, much older than Rashi but apparently unknown to him, is a midrash collection called Pirkei deRabi Eliezer (Israel, 3rd century CE). On 38:1 it calls our attention to the verse that says that Shechem desired Dina the daughter of Yaakov – that Shechem had seen the tents pitched and wanted the wealth as well as the girl, so he send women to play music on pipes in the streets, and as soon as Dina came out drawn by the noise, he takes her. So depending on where you look, you will see different positions regarding Dina’s agency – and by comparison, the agency given to women in general.
Now, let’s talk about the case itself. There is a dispute on whether this is rape or seduction. Rape is an objective crime, seduction is much more complicated. And you understand the different reactions of the males in the story by separating these two ideas.
Those who see this as rape point out to “lay with her by force.” But this is a question of translation – the word “yeaneha” actually means “mistreated her” or “he humbled her” – and it is used in several other instances, but not in rape. This mistreatment of the body can be self-inflicted, imposed, or willing, and is used to describe fasting (Vayikra 23:32), slavery (Bereishit 15:13), and even adultery (Devarim 22:24).
The Tanach talks about rape in different moments – and in all those the expressions are chazakah – lit. force, or tefisa – lit. seizing physically (see Deuteronomy 22:25-28; II Samuel 13). Both are missing from this story. There is no expression by Dina of screaming or trying to ward off Shechem. The verb used is lakach, to take, an ambiguous verb that is used also in marriage (to take as a wife.) The Tanach also knows about seduction, and in the case of a woman not betrothed, they must get married (Exodus 22:15-16) or the father receives the bride-price, whatever the father decides. Jewish law later, due to rabbininc enactments, will make sure that in the case of marriage the woman has the final say in any instance.
But back to our case – compare Dina’s case to the case of rape of Tamar by Amnon. As soon as he is done, he casts Tamar into the streets (II Shemuel 13:15-19). The idea is that once the act of violence is completed, from the psychological standpoint, the usual case of rape results in disgust on the part of the rapist for his victim. And this is why in Deuteronomy the rapist is punished by having to marry and never to divorce his victim unless she desires it (Devarim 22:29). But look at Shechem – in the aftermath we read “his soul clung to Dina… and he loved the girl, and he spoke to the girl’s heart” (34:3). They are either inside the palace or they go into the palace later.
With those possibilities in mind, we can try to position each of the male characters. Each reaction is paired with a verse:
Yaakov (“for Dina his daughter had been defiled” [v. 5]);
The sons (“for an abomination had been committed in Yisrael” [v. 7]);
Chamor (“Shechem my son longs for your daughter” [v. 8]).
Yaakov sees his daughter as defiled because she had relations with an uncircumcised male. His baby, unaccustomed to the attentions of men she is not related to, has been taken advantage of by the local prince, a youth who may have slept with half the girls in his town already, for whom “I want, I have” is pretty much the law: this is not exactly democracy. Perhaps she even believes she is in love with him. Yaakov is upset but what can he say? He is learning all this through this visit of the king, Chamor, who actually wants the two young people to marry. Maybe Yaakov does not want to leave his daughter in the hands of this man, but he cannot force her to leave either. Uncharacteristically, Yaakov is quiet and reminds us much more of Yitzchak.
For Dina’s brothers, this is a clear-cut case of rape – statutory rape, perhaps, but the legal difference is not so important. “For an abomination had been committed in Yisrael, to sleep with a daughter of Yaakov – such cannot be done!” They are incensed. They feel dishonored and decide to act with guile, convincing the townspeople to circumcise themselves. Shimon and Levi, the zealots, alone murder every male, but all sons help in the plunder (v. 25-28).
Chamor sees this as a case of young love. Apparently, he is serious, seeing a full socioeconomic assimilation in his town’s future. Indeed, his townsmen see circumcision as a prerequisite for the assimilation of Yisrael amid the Chivi. They suspect nothing, since they see nothing wrong with the whole situation – and even if they did, who among them was going to go against the future king?
Dina, clearly, is not part of the conversation. She is not given the chance to say she wants – or not – to marry Shechem. Her only active part is going out. In all the rest of the story she is passive, and is only mentioned as an independent person at the end, on verse 26. She is seen as a figure, property, really, and the words to describe her will describe to whom she “belongs” – a girl to become a wife, a daughter, a sister. The story is much more a story about the positions of the men regarding Dina than of Dina herself. But that she might have been a willing participant is also underscored by what the brothers say at the end: is she to be treated like a prostitute? Prostitutes typically engage in sexual activity willingly, whatever your thoughts about prostitution might be.
Now, even though all brothers are together to take Dina back, only two are filled with blood lust. The brothers say twice that the only guilt here is “defiling” Dina. They do not even bring up the abduction – maybe because there was none. Maybe they all understand, through Chamor, that Dina went willingly. But that does not matter – it was the honor of the males that they go to punish the city. Yet Shimon and Levi go on to do an indiscriminate killing.
In terms of social conventions, if the seductor and the seduced were Israelites, they would be married. But this story comes to talk about the intermarriage with idolaters, circumcised or not. In this case, the polemic is very strong – and it has reverberations later in Deuteronomy and Ezra-Nehemiah. But neither of those two books have the violent reaction of Shimon and Levi. That is so beyond the pale that Yaakov objects strongly at the end of the story, and will not forget this when he dies, cursing them (Gen. 49:5-7):
“Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen.
Cursed be their anger so fierce,
And their wrath so relentless.
I will divide them in Jacob,
Scatter them in Israel.”
Levi, we all know, gets no land – they are scattered in towns and are not landowners. Shimeon, as a tribe, eventually has land, but it is an enclave inside the tribe of Yehuda (See map here). Rashi, looking at this much later, will say that “all the very poor, such as scribes and elementary teachers, are all from the tribe of Shimeon.” Levi, without any land, has to serve in the temple and “go around collecting the tithes and gifts to the levites and kohanim” (Rashi on Genesis 49:7), a step up from begging, but not by much.
If the reaction of Yaakov in the beginning has to do with practicality, we see that it morphs to moral at the end of his life. Not only what Shimon and Levi did was morality wrong, but also it demonstrated even less consideration for Dina’s welfare than the laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
Dina will disappear from the Torah, but the daughter that she has with Shechem, according to the midrash, will be Asenat (Pirkei deRabi Eliezer 38:1-2). Asenat will marry Yosef. This last midrash is really looking to find a silver lining in all this, one of the most difficult stories of our patriarchs.
Our portion is Vayishlach, and it is the last one where angels figure extensively through one of the patriarchs, Ya’akov (Jacob). With next portion, Vayeshev, the presence of angels will diminish – Yosef has no encounters with angels. But angels will continue to figure prominently throughout the Jewish tradition, even though that imagery is recreated by Christians, and many Jews do not talk about angels at all. This is a traditional story that comes from Poland, in which angels play an important part, and in which a Talmudic discussion about one specific angel, Layla, is the background [you can read it by clicking here].
Long ago, in a place not far from here, there was very pious rabbi, wise and knowledgeable in Kabbalah. He had a wife whom he loved dearly, and she loved him back. The couple was always at peace, and that happiness was only darkened by the fact that they had no children. Now, because of his knowledge of Kabbalah, one of the things he did for the people in the town was to write amulets for the women who had a hard time conceiving. As soon as the woman put the amulet around her neck, which had the name of the angel Layla, who is responsible for conception and pregnancy, she would become pregnant.
After many years, his wife finally asked him the question: ‘Dearest, if your amulets are so effective, why don’t you write an amulet for us?’
‘The people of the town need amulets to strengthen their faith in the Holy One, dearest. Our faith is strong, so we don’t need amulets. I am confident that God will send a child to us, we just need to be patient.’
That very night, both the wife and the husband had a vivid dream, with a beautiful woman, who called herself Laylah. She was the angel. And she told them: ‘The Holy One of Blessing has heard you. You will have a child within a year. The only request is that the child be named Shmuel (Samuel).” When they awoke, they were amazed to discover they had the same dream. And true, in a year she gave birth to a baby boy.
When he came out, after the midwife cleaned him, his skin shone and illuminated the bedroom. It was clear that this was a very special soul. But he was different than any other baby the midwife had ever delivered: ‘Look at his lips!’ she said ‘I have never seen a baby born without the separation on the top of the lips!’
As mother and child were resting, the husband came in and said: ‘This light that surrounds him is proof! Here is a very special soul, just like the angel Layla promised us!’
‘Do you know my friend Layla?’ a voice suddenly asked.
‘Who said this?’ asked the rabbi, amazed to hear a voice that was not his or his wife’s. ‘I did, I, you son’, the voice responded.
The rabbi’s wife sat on the bed and said: ‘But you are only an infant!’
‘Yes, mother’, the baby continued, ‘but the angel Layla gave me a great gift. She touches all other babies above the lips to make they forget everything they learn in their mother’s womb. But Layla let me retain all my memories. I still have work to do in this world.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked the rabbi.
‘Bring everyone of the town, everyone who wants to listen to a great story, and I will tell it.’
So the rabbi was seen like a madman, running around town, inviting everyone to their home, telling them that the newborn was speaking like a grown up man. And of course, even those who thought the rabbi had lost it on account of being a father, came to check things out. And suddenly, the small home of the rabbi was filled with people. The infant began speaking, to the amazement of all.
‘As you know, my name will be Shmu’el. As all other babies, I come to this place with the help and supervision of the angel Layla. She brought my body and soul together, and taught me from the Book of Mysteries, and she teaches every soul before they arrive to this plane of existence. But she flicks her fingers under the noses of the soon-to-be-born, so they will forget all they learned, and will discover the world anew, making new mistakes and discovering new happinesses. But Layla did not do that to me, because I have unfinished business.
In my previous life I was a storyteller named Shmu’el. I would travel from city to city weaving my tales and creating new stories, teaching Judaism through them. I became famous, as did my stories. And after many years of doing so, I felt it was time to retire, so I let people know I was going to tell my last story and that all were invited to listen. People came from all over, and from the very first word I felt this was going to be special. From the very first word, people were listening like a trance, nothing existed for them but my words. But I did not get to finish my story, my heart gave out in the middle of it.
The uproar on earth was only matched by the uproar on heaven. The angels too wanted to hear the end. As I arrived in Gan Eden, I was surrounded by angels wanting to know how the story ended. But I refused to tell them, because I thought it was unfair – people on earth were my main listeners, they were more deprived than the angels.
They insisted for years, and for years I refused. After 300 years, they finally gave up, and they requested that I be allowed to come back so the tale can be finished. That is why Layla permitted me to remember everything. So now I will begin telling the story again.’
And as Shmu’el began telling the story, a great wind filled the house, and people were amazed to feel and see angelic presences all around them. The tale was long and complex, and lasted many hours. But no one thought about leaving, they were in a trance, drinking the words of Shmu’el, just as they were when he told the tale the first time. Morning came, and still no one moved.
As the tale ended, Shmu’el felt a great relief, and all the angels began singing. The angel Layla stepped in, a beautiful woman, kissed Shmu’el on the head and told him this was the greatest tale ever told. She then gently flicked Shmu’el in the space between the nose and the lips. He closed his eyes, and went to sleep.
All the angels departed, including Layla. The baby awoke as people were leaving, and the only thing he could remember was how hungry he was. His mother fed him, and he was just like us – a newborn ready to make new mistakes and discover new happinesses.
Vayetze is a fundamental portion for our collective historical arch in the Torah. It brings the birth of the carriers of the story onwards – the children of Yaakov, who will become the Children of Israel. Many of the stories we read in our portion have correlations with other sections in the Torah.
The portion opens with the famous dream of the stairs. This will be the final connection between Yaakov and Avraham – the blessing bestowed by God, marking Yaakov as chosen. Vayetze marks interesting changes and departures from the previous patterns: up to this moment, each patriarch had two sons, and one is chosen while the other is not. In Yaakov’s case, all children will be chosen – even though we know one will still be favorite. The sheer number of children will break with the pattern of two children before: Adam and Chava, Avraham, Sarah and Hagar, and Yitzchak and Rivkah. The competition for Divine favor, which marked all the previous notable families, also ends here. Yosef will have a leadership role, but not a special blessing.
In terms of collective arch, Yaakov and Avraham will be connected also through the foreshadowing of slavery in Egypt. Avraham has this both in the “sister-wife” narrative involving Pharaoh (Gen, 12:10-20) and in the Covenant between the Parts (Gen. 15:1-15). Yaakov will actually live the foreshadowing, and the signs are found in our reading.
The trickster will be tricked time and time again, and what was supposed to be “just a few days, until your brother cools down” (27:44) will become 20 years.
Our triennial picks up here, with yet another trick by Lavan.
~ What is the trick? How is it solved by Yaakov? How do you understand the solution proposed?
~ Can you find word connections between this moment and the slavery in Egypt?
~ What is the relationship between Rachel and Leah, and Lavan?
The trick that we read in our triennial is the change, again, of the wages of Yaakov by Lavan. This time, before God tells Yaakov it is time to go back, Yaakov himself wants to go back (30:25). But he remains, not due to a command from God, but because of a new transaction between him and Lavan. What are the words Lavan uses? “I learned by divination that I have been blessed by God because of you.”
And so Yaakov stays a few more years, his ego satisfied, apparently, by the words of Lavan, and by the promise of “doing something for my house” (30:31). This is eerily similar, in theme, with the sale of the birthright by Esav. With Esav, the moment of hunger took over from the larger picture, the birthright. At this moment, the moment of “making something of himself” takes over the value of going back to his family.
I don’t know about other immigrants, but Brazilian people that go back to Brazil for a visit usually spend an enormous amount of money on new clothes and gifts to everyone (the Brazilian idea of family is much more encompassing than the American) in part because they, like Yaakov at this moment, want to go back showing that they accomplished something in America.
But apparently it is all good, just as the birthright sale was, because there is no intervention by God. The intervention comes later on the portion, when God Godself talks to Yaakov and tells him to go back (31:3) – and now Yaakov can’t postpone it, for many reasons.
One of the reasons is that he, indeed, made something of himself – apparently, again, from nothing. The agreement he reaches with Lavan is that he will keep all the spotted, speckled and dark-colored animals. And Lavan will keep all the white ones. Lavan, true to his name, agrees. But true to his character, before Yaakov can select the animals, he himself takes away all the speckled, spotted and dark-colored – leaving Yaakov with only white ones to tend – meaning, Yaakov again gets nothing.
And then comes a scene that is the strangest for us: the shoots of poplar, almond and plane trees are peeled, creating markings – and all the sheep that mate looking at those shoots, give birth to speckled animals. The three types of trees have a function: poplar grows fast, plane is resistant to disease and has clusters of seedballs, finally, almond grows fast and gives almonds in clusters as well. The imagery of growing fast, healthy and plentifully should not be lost here. And if genetically it seems impossible, keep in mind that for very many generations there was a different concept regarding reproduction – what you see and think at the moment of conception is what happens. This was regarded as true with humans, all the more so, in this text, it should apply to sheep.
This theory is called “maternal impression” and it was alive and well until the 19th century. We know this because of the famous Elephant Man, about whom it was believed that his deformities came from his mother having been knocked over and frightened by a circus elephant. This idea is present also in several Rabbinic accounts.
In terms of maternity impression, the portion in its totality brings the mothers to fore. It is the competition between Leah and Rachel that brings an end to the competition between the children, by breaking the pattern of two boys per couple. They are also the ones giving the names to the children, with one exception – Levi. While Rachel is loved because of her beauty, Leah ends up being respected because of the sheer number of children she gives to Yaakov.
Yaakov remains attracted to Rachel – she is so similar to him in many aspects, besides being beautiful: a trickster herself, she steals the household idols (not in our triennial) and then dupes her father. In the intense desire to have children, she gets her sister to give the mandrakes to her, by selling Yaakov for one night – is this type of exchange not familiar?
Leah, on the other hand, is described only through her eyes. In Hebrew, rakot, translated variedly as weak, tender, moist. This should remind you of another set of eyes – Yitzchak’s. The other set of eyes mentioned in the Torah, which grow weak (27:1). And you probably heard the maxim “the eyes are the window to the soul.”
In that sense I think the sisters are symbolizing the two realms that are pulling Yaakov – the daily grind, the desire of “making something of himself”, of material growth and beauty and the impulse of this moment versus the higher thinking, the spiritual desire, the wanting to be part of Avraham’s blessing. It is looking at Yaakov through these lenses that we can understand his transactional reaction to the vision of the stairs: “If God does this and that… then God will be my God, and I will give 10% to God. (28:20-22)”
This is also how we can understand this entire portion, and why the rabbis cut the story the way they did – the portion opens and closes with Yaakov meeting God at the beginning and God’s angels at the end. But inside are all of Yaakov’s very human dealings: running away, relying on his physical strength, falling in love, dealing with Lavan, becoming rich and having many children without any divine intervention.
Yaakov, just like us, is pulled between two visions – the spiritual one, represented by Leah, and the physical one, represented by Rachel. And in the moment, the small daily tasks, God does not seem present for Yaakov – who still relies on incredible encounters that will remind him of his own need for growth. It is that presence, working in the background through none other than Lavan – who is initially told by divination of the presence of God (our reading, 30:27), and then through a dream (31:24); and he is the one to remind Yaakov of God’s protective presence.
The same dynamic will happen many generations later with the Exodus of Egypt, also foretold in our portion through the linguistic and thematic similarities: both Pharaoh and Lavan look at the Israelites and Yaakov differently, both outsmart them into working or slavery, both the Israelites and Yaakov increase and prosper, both depart at night with spoils, both are protected by God in their run. The Israelites will time and again openly doubt Moshe, and Yaakov still needs visions to keep him going. Both climaxes will happen near water – the struggling with the angel and the renaming of Yaakov, the finally believing in God with the Song at the Sea.
And that same dynamic is present in our own lives – how many times have you, just this past year, struggled to find God, or a higher purpose, or a transcendent moment in your daily life? All of us are still searching for a higher meaning, to make a difference, to connect with something that gives us purpose. And how much are we pulled between that desire and the desire of material growth, of success, of fame?
This is even present in how Thanksgiving happens in America – we give thanks and then proceed on Black Friday to buy everything we see we don’t have. The same pull is there.
And just as Yaakov we keep trying, and some times succeeding, to remind ourselves to follow our better selves, or higher calling, our true values, our spirituality. May this week that opens be such a week: of growth, of touching the intangible, the ineffable. Shabbat shalom
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.
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?
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)
[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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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?