Archive for December, 2019

I have shared this story before, about my youngest daughter, adopted from Korea.  When she was 4 and a half years old, I found her crying while looking into the mirror.  When I asked why, she responded how upset she was that her eyes did not look like mine. My wife and I kept trying to assure her we thought she was beautiful just as she was, and looking like us was not important.  We tried the advice from a book about adopted children, but that had no effect.  As she turned 5, we took both of our children to Disney World.  While eating lunch at a restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, a woman came up to us, pointed to our Korean daughter and asked if she could take a picture of her.  When we asked why, she said that our daughter’s eyes were the most beautiful she had ever seen.  Our daughter heard this, sat up, smiled, and never complained or cried about her eyes ever again.

We had no idea who this woman was who changed our daughter’s self-perception.  It just felt like God had sent her, as a special divine messenger, to re direct our daughter.  I wonder how many of us have encountered unknown people whose words or actions made a dramatic change in our lives?  In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, this is exactly what happened to Joseph.

His story seems a bit sad in this parashah.  While he is described as Jacob’s favorite son, his brothers are portrayed a despising him.  Their hatred for him increases when he describes dreams that are metaphors for the rest of the family bowing to him.  Just after his sharing of these dreams, his brothers take Jacob’s flocks of sheep to pasture in Shechem, their father, here being referred to as Yisra’el, sends Joseph to check on how the flocks are doing.  When Joseph arrives in Shechem, he cannot find his brothers and the flocks.  As he wanders in a field, a man finds him and directs him to where they actually are.  Once he finds them, their hatred of him results in him being imprisoned in a pit and then sold as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelites, who in turn sell him into slavery in Egypt.

While this episode, as well as the balance of Joseph’s experience in this week’s parashah, is oppressive and punishing of Joseph; it actually sets up the path on which he eventually becomes the vizier in Egypt. Decades later; having this position saves his family from a famine.  While Joseph suffered from finding his brothers, in the long run, the unknown man who found him directed him on the path that resulted in his high achievements. A key question is if this unknown, nameless man, was a divine messenger sent by God to make sure Joseph’s path was in the right direction.

The midrash Bereshit Rabbah 84:14 says this man was one of 3 angels.  Nachmanides puts this in the context that Joseph deserved having a messenger from God help him, because the text from Genesis 37:12 -14 shows that he was dedicated to honoring and obeying his father, displayed by his wandering the fields in Shechem searching for his brothers.  In this context he must have known they despised him.  A further proof given is the word used in his response to his father’s direction to find his brothers and bring back a report on how the flocks were doing.  Joseph’s response was hineini, “here I am,” which Rashi explains connotes humility and enthusiasm for doing the bidding of his father. Throughout the Tanach, hineini, implies a deep presence with a commitment to God.

Rashi gives a little different explanation of who the unknown man is.  He still describes him as a divine messenger, but one whose name is Gabriel, which in Hebrew means “God’s man.”  A proof Rashi uses is a reference to Daniel 9:21, a verse from a description of a vision Daniel had in Babylon.  In rabbinic tradition, Gabriel is the name of one of 4 key angels who serve God.

Perhaps the most important piece that implies this man/angel/messenger is acting on behalf of God is the word that describes his encountering Joseph, in Hebrew vayimtza’eihu, which directly translated is “and he found him.”  This was not an accidental encounter, rather, this verb implies a purposeful one.  The deeper version of the question above now is whether the messenger sent by God was a divine, heavenly being, or a human whose “finding” of Joseph was not planned by him but in an unknown way by God?

And this question raises something for all of us to contemplate.  How much in our lives is just accidental and how much is meant to aim us in a particular, meaningful direction?  Judaism does not teach that everything in our life is pre-planned by God, but a combination. As Rabbi Akiva teaches, “All is foreseen yet choice is given.”  This is generally interpreted to mean that God knows everything that is going to happen in this world, yet we have individual choices.

Akiva’s teaching can be rather confusing.  If God foresees everything, how can our choices truly be free will?  One possible answer is that God know every potential outcome in our lives.  We make free will choices of the path we wish to try and take, but God knows how that choice will define our future.  We do not. We are aware of hints about our potential, about how life might evolve, but we can truly never foresee any end result. Sometimes, as we move down a path, a person we have no idea about, and unexptectedly have an interaction with, often impacts our life in a positive direction.   It does not completely secure a path, as the ultimate result depends on our choices.  We can see this as a piece of help that God provides.

We can apply this all to Joseph’s story.  His path is not completely pre-ordained.  It is dependent on the choices he will make, and great examples will occur after he arrives in Egypt.  But without the help of the unknown man in the fields of Shechem, Joseph would never get to Egypt.

Here is a final contemplation:  are we the recipients of the aid of the unknown messenger of God OR have we unknowingly played that role.  While the rabbis commenting on the man in the field identify him, they do not all say he knew the role his act would play.  And I am sure the woman who praised the eyes of my 5 year old daughter, had no idea how that would affect her, but God did.

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The famous heroine who saved many slaves, Harriet Tubman, originally was named Araminta (Minty). At a key moment in her life, she changed her name to Harriet.  Some historians say this occurred when she decided to rescue herself from slavery. If true, this was a large contribution to her total identity change as she achieved freedom.  It was the identity connected to her life as an amazing heroine who, after gaining freedom, dedicated all of her work to freeing others still in slavery.  Harriet’s decision to change her name becomes connected to her life of impacting the world to benefit others.

In the Torah, name changes are tied to the new directions in the lives of Torah characters.  Abraham (Avraham) begins as Avram.  Once his covenant with God is in place, he becomes Abraham, which can be translated as “father of the people.”  His wife Sarai becomes Sarah.  In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob, (Ya’akov) becomes Israel (Yisra’el).  The Torah presents God as the name changer.

Part of the story of Jacob’s name change is well known.  Jacob learns he is about to meet his brother, Esau, whose threats to his life is the reason he fled from his homeland.  He separates from the rest of his family, dealing with his fear of Esau.  Once alone, he wrestles with a man who somehow turns out to be representing God.  Jacob does not lose the fight, so this divine person presents a new name for him, Yisra’el(Israel), as the meaning is “struggling with God.”  However, his name does not actually change at this moment.

The Torah portion continues and Jacob experiences a number of difficult incidents, starting with his meeting with Esau.  He then deals with the rape of his daughter, Dinah, tries to find a way to handle it, and struggles with what two of his sons do in revenge for their sister. Finally, God tells Jacob to go to the place he began his journey when fleeing from his home so many years earlier, Beth El.  It is here that Jacob is told by God his name is now Yisra’el.  A question we can ask is, what is meant by this delay in his name change?

We can start with a commentary by Rashi, who states that the “man” who wrestled with Jacob was Esau’s ministering angel.  Therefore it was necessary for Jacob to be connecting directly with God for the name change to become real, and that would happen at Beth El, the place Jacob awoke to the presence of God when he began his life’s journey.  Nachmanides adds that Jacob’s second experience with God at Beth El might imply it is okay for him to be called either name, Jacob or Yisra’el.  This makes us look a bit deeper into the meanings of both names.

Jacob (Ya’akov) is related to the word akeiv, which means “heel.”  Esau and Jacob are twins, with Esau being born first.  Ya’akovimplies an attempt to catch the heel of Esau.  It is a prediction of Jacob’s overcoming of Esau via the inheritance from and blessing of their father.  Some rabbinic commentators also connect the name Ya’akovto the Hebrew word akavah, which can mean deceit, guile, or provocation.  Any or all of these words describe how Jacob got Esau to turn the right to the inheritance over to him as well as the trick Jacob played on Isaac to get his blessing.  All of these actions provoke Esau into his hatred of Jacob.

When Jacob flees from Canaan to escape Esau’s threat, he has his first true experience with God, and wakes up to God’s presence where he does not expect it.  However, he does not express full faith in God, but tries to strike a deal that his faith depends on God staying with him and protecting him (Genesis 28:20,21).  His life is filled with ups and downs, so it can be interpreted as a constant struggle with his faith in God.  Another way to interpret Jacob’s wrestling in this week’s Torah portion would be an internal conflict over how much to trust God, especially as he is about to reconnect with his aggressive brother.  Thus we get the translation of Yisra’elas “struggling with God.”

However, there are other ways to translate that name.  Using the same consonants but changing the vowels, you could pronounce the name as Yashar El, which means the one who God makes straight.  After the struggle with God (or the divine representative) Jacob has a peaceful yet somewhat struggling meeting with Esau.  Following that, he tries to deal with Dinah’s situation and the aftermath in a way he thinks is best.  He is angry over some of the results.  Perhaps God, at Beth El, is using the name to try and straighten out how Jacob deals with difficulties.  At least Jacob has straightened out by no longer using deceit to achieve what he wants.

There is yet a third way to interpret the consonant letters that are in the name Yisra’el, it could be read as yesh ra El, “there he saw God.”  At Beth El, the Torah states that God appears to Jacob (Genesis 35:9).  God then confirms the change of his name to Yisra’eland also shares one of God’s names, El Shaddai.

By simply re pronouncing the consonants of the name Yisra’el with different vowels, the name takes on 3 meanings that all apply to the path of Jacob’s life.  As someone who gains what he feels he deserves by deceit and guile, he launches a complex path.  While he acknowledges God’s presence, he struggles with the actual impact God has on dealing with the difficult moments he experiences.  Perhaps he is wrestling with his personal expectations.   By reaching a point of belief in the proper risk to take; God (and/or his faith in God) straightens his path.  Then, when something amazingly impactful happens, he ends up “seeing” God.  It is a brief moment, but it provides strength in dealing with life’s struggles. Jacob finally accepts the additional name that will define not only his future, but of all his descendants – us.

Yisra’el becomes the name for all of the Jewish people.  Its various potential meanings represents what all of us end up experiencing:  struggles, wondering about our faith in God, trying to counter our incidents of deceit including repentance for them, straightening our path in life, and then seeing – for a moment – something divine that inspires us.  Most important, we actually decide on whether or not we accept the name.  Yisra’el is not just the label for our people.  It represents the reality of complexity in each of our lives.  God supplies the name, but we choose where to take that reality.  May our choices, despite life’s difficulty, result in moral commitment like Harriet Tubman.

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The world of music changed so much while I was growing up.  When the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, I watched with my parents, but was afraid to express my interest in music different from what my dad liked.  So it was not the Beatles that pushed me into contemporary music in those years.  No, it was the song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones.  I used to listen to that piece every time I was at my friend’s house.  It was The Rolling Stones who opened my mind to the dramatic evolution of music occurring in the 1960’s.  In this week’s parashah (Torah portion), Vayetzei, there is a rolling stone that is interpreted to open one’s mind – not about music, but about God.    

Jacob has left his family in Canaan to head to Haran to escape from his brother Esau and perhaps find his mother Rebekkah’s family.  He arrives at a well in Genesis 29:1.  There he sees a water well with 3 flocks of sheep lying by it. The well was covered by a heavy stone that would be rolled away when all of the sheep needing to be given water were present.  Jacob sees the beautiful Rachel, daughter of Lavan, coming with her flock of sheep. He then rolls the stone off from the well in order that the flock can get its water. 

Seems like a simple story.  Yet, it is seen as a metaphor for a number of things.  According to Sefas Emes, the well is a symbol that contains a life sustaining, even life changing element.  Jacob is coming to his.  The 3 flocks of sheep represent chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding), and da’at (knowledge).  The stone covering the well represents our corporeality, the limitations our physical body provides that interferes with what we need to be aware of God. 

When Jacob sees Rachel, he feels something for the first time in life – falling in love.  At the beginning of the Torah portion, Jacob has a dream that makes him realize God is everywhere, not a place in particular.  However, his mind is still filled with questions.  He tries to make an agreement with God to stay with him to maintain his faith.  But love opens his soul in a way that allows him to delve into wisdom, understanding and knowledge; thereby giving him the ability to roll the stone back that is inhibiting his connection to God.  This is one interpretation.

Here is another.  The well represents prayer – another way to connect with God.  The stone represents our evil urge that needs to be controlled in order for us delve more meaningfully into life.  There is a commentary that says we pray “Adonai s’fatai tiftach” (God open our lips) before the tefillah, asking God to give us the means to roll back our evil urge.  Yet, asking God for the help is not enough to move to a deeper connection to God.  We need to serve God through our actions in order to truly open our mouths and hearts.  The argument among Jews is what are the real service actions for God that achieves this?  Is it following ritual halachah (law) or moral/social justice actions?  What all Jews agree upon is that praying is not enough.  Our covenant with God demands we act in a way that serves God. That deepens the meaning and effect of prayer. 

We can also look for meaning in the word translated from Hebrew as “rolling,” vayigal.  A number of traditional commentators relate this word, whose root is gimel, lamed, lamed to galah, whose root is gimel, lamed, hey; which means “reveal.”  Rolling the stone is a metaphor for revealing inward truth.  In this story about Jacob we can interpret this as teaching how love pushes to have Jacob reveal his true self. 

Here is one more perspective, by Malbim, that the location of the well determines the completeness of connection to God.  If it is in the city, this represents the Jewish people being in their land, Israel.  If it is in the field, it represents them being in the diaspora. 

The potential meanings are numerous, yet there is one piece upon which all Jewish commentary would agree – the power to do the opening to assess, God, prayer, connection, or our true selves – whatever we might believe the well represents, resides within each of us.  It is our level of caring, actions, dedication, and desire to improve that can provide the ability to roll the stone.  It is a challenge for us all.

Finally, I must admit that until I looked deeper into this Torah portion, I never saw the connection of The Rolling Stones to the Torah.  And, I did get some satisfaction.

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