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Archive for the ‘Torah commentary’ Category

This week’s Torah portion contains a segment held in holiness not only in Judaism, but by Christianity – the first version of the 10 commandments.  In this parashah they are listed in Exodus 20.  A slightly different version is in Deuteronomy 5.  While both religions place high importance on the 10 commandments, the Jewish context and perspective is rather different.  Part of the difference is due to overall Jewish tradition.  Part is due to paying attention to the full Hebrew writing of each commandment.

In Jewish tradition, the 10 commandments, while significant, are just an introduction to the Torah’s 613 commandments. One can also argue that the Holiness Code in Leviticus chapter 19 is actually more significant than the 10 commandments. A combination of the wording of even similar commandments in Leviticus 19 as well as the presence of the most famous phrase, “love your neighbor as yourself,” makes a good argument that the Holiness Code is more instrumental than the 10 commandments.  Yet, it is the 10 commandments that are more universally influential.  They are often not only on display in synagogues, but also in numerous non-Jewish places, and in Christian dominated institutions as well.

That common use, by both Christians and Jews, is why we should look at the correct reading of commandments in their Hebrew origin in order to understand them correctly.  One common commandment that is misunderstood is the third commandment “You shall not take the name of God in vain; for God will not hold him guiltless who takes God’s name in vain.”  Some translations are worded, “You shall not swear…”  Numerous people take that to mean you cannot do cursing, especially using God’s name.  However, the overall Torah context indicates a different meaning – you cannot take an oath to something falsely using God’s name.  For example, if you swear by God’s name to tell the truth as a witness in a trial, you cannot lie.

The commandment I choose to discuss in more detail is the 5thcommandment, which serves as an interesting transition between those overseeing human relationship with God and those overseeing human to human relationships. That command states, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long on the land which the Eternal your God is giving you.”  Here is how the Christian Bible looks at the commandment through Paul’s statement in Ephesians 6:1 – 3:  “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’- which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’”  There are two key differences between this perspective and the Jewish one.

It is Maimonides who provides a lot of insight into how Judaism looks at the fifth commandment.  Here is Maimonides definition of honoring parents from chapter VI of his Mishneh Torah:

“What Does honoring parents imply?  It means providing them with food and drink, clothing and covering, the expense to be borne by the father.  If the father is poor and the son is in a position to take care of his parents, he is compelled to do so.  He must support his parents in accordance with his means, conduct his father in and out, and perform for him such personal services as disciples perform for their teacher.”

The commandment of honoring parents is not about obeying them.  We do that as young children.  Upon reaching full adulthood, it is not about obeyance, but about making sure our aging parents are taken care with the same concerns they took care of us as little children.  A reality of life happens while aging.  We shift places in certain ways with our parents.  There is a plethora of possible changes in their lives, physically and mentally, that Maimonides teaches we should address on their behalf.  Further, we must have extreme patience with how our parents exist and act as their lives shift, especially if they shift in a negative direction.  Although Maimonides does put a limit on how much a father can demand, here is an example of the tolerance a parent’s child must have of them:

“To what lengths should the duty of honoring parents go?  Even were they to take a purse of his (the child’s), full of gold, and cast it in his presence into the sea, he must not shame them, manifest grief in their presence, or display any anger, but accept the divine decree without demur.”

To summarize what Maimonides is trying to teach, we must be sure our parents are taken care of properly if they are insecurely aging, but it must be by no more than what we can afford or are able to do.  Further, we can hire someone to take care of them if that works better, as opposed to giving up our life to do so.  However, the bottom line is to respect and honor them if they lose the ability to care for themselves, and do the best we can for them.

Now we must look at part two of the commandment, “that your days may be long on the land which the Eternal your God is giving you.”  Here is the true difference between Paul’s interpretation of the meaning in Ephesians and the actual context for Jewish history in the Torah. Paul interprets that as having a long life on earth.  He sees honoring the parents as following their dedication to God, which will result in admission to heaven upon death.  The context of Israelite history and Jewish tradition is very different.

The Hebrew clearly is referring to the Promised Land that the Israelites are heading to during their exodus. They will be deserving of having that land a long time if the elderly are properly and kindly managed.  This is a basic morality of Judaism.  We can easily apply this to all the elderly, not just our parents.  For example, Judaism suggests that our teachers are supposed to be considered as additional parents, as our learning is so important. There is no question Jewish morality requires us to care for our loved ones.  And love ones is not defined simply by biological family.

This is extremely relevant today, as we must make proper care of the elderly a serious priority in our society.  Further, we can conclude if our care for the elderly is insignificant, our society, our country, will not deserve a long existence.  The commandments in the Torah are often much deeper than we think.  If we are not willing to look at the full meaning, and then follow as best as we can, we are failing to build the world in the way we should.  In Judaism, building this world is far more our central purpose than finding a way to heaven.

 

 

 

 

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The Song by the Sea, sung by Moses and the Israelites just after crossing the Sea of Reeds, completely escaping the Egyptian army, is without question among the highlights of the entire Torah.  One of its lines is chanted or sung during every morning or evening service throughout Judaism:

מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהוָ֔ה מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃

Mi chamocha ba’eilim Adonai, mi kamocha ne’edar bakodesh, nora t’hillot oseh feleh.

“Who is like unto You O God, among the mighty?  Who is like unto You, glorious in holiness awesome in splendor, working wonders?”This is a song of redemption, the first in the history of the people of Israel, setting a precedent for a series of redemption songs throughout our history.

In today’s world there are countless versions of music for these words, ways to sing or chant.  The variance in styles of music present in Mi Chamocha reflects the variance in feelings represented and transmitted by each service.  There are moments of sadness, moments of happiness.  There are moments of anger, moments of joy.  There are moments of frustration, moments of celebration.  Yet in all the variables of prayer emotions conveyed through Mi Chamocha,the recognition of redemption, achieved by a combination of God and the Israelite people, links all of the emotions together.

The variance of how the Song by the Sea was sung by the Israelites is a subject of discussion in the Talmud, Sotah 30b.  Three versions are presented.  The first, by Rabbi Akiba, says that Moses would sing a line and the people would affirm by singing the first line Moses sang again and again.  Here is the example:

Moses:  “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God”

Moses:  “for God is highly exalted.”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God.”

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yosse puts it a bit differently.  He says the Israelites repeat each line after Moses sings it. Here is the example:

Moses: “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God”

Moses:  “for God is highly exalted”

Israelites:  “for God is highly exalted”

The third method is the Israelites singing what Moses did then completing each phrase with what is considered their own words.

Moses:  “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “for God is highly exalted.”  (created by the people in response)

Let’s consider what each version of the singing style might represent.  The first one, in which the people repeat again and again the first phrase that Moses sang, can be seen as an affirmation of his leadership.  They are only following the leader, which is represented by singing no words of their own. The second can be seen as admiring the leader enough to model what he is doing (singing).  The third can be interpreted as the people learning from the leader enough to create something new.  The result is the leader and the people working together in order to move everyone forward in the most meaningful way.

In modern times it is easy to see how each version can be interpreted and applied in today’s politics.  The first might be seen as authoritarianism, the second as being obsessed with a celebrity and the third as the only correct version of a relationship between a leader and his/her people.  This kind of interpretation, however, misrepresents what rabbinic tradition is trying to convey by pointing out each version of the song.  It is not about determining which is appropriate, but recognizing that there are moments of need for all three.  In other words, life is way too complicated to focus on only one approach.  More important is how all aspects of life are properly balanced.

I would suggest that what is fully relevant for life today is not any of the means in which the song Moses begins and sings to, for, or with the Israelites. It is what comes immediately after the end of the Song by the Sea.  Here is that verse 15:21:

מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם

Vata’an lahem Miriam, shiru L’Adonai ki go’ah ga’ah, soos v’rochvo ramah vayam.

Here is a common translation, “And Miriam sang unto them, sing to Adonai for God is highly exalted, the horse and his rider God threw into the sea.” However the most accurate translation of the very first word, vata’anwould be “and she answered.”

What Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s prophetic sister, did was to answer the feelings of the people of Israel.  What Moses did was to use the song to establish some version of his leadership. There was nothing wrong with what Moses did.   It was just incomplete.  Miriam, however, was not focused on her role, but on providing an answer to the Israelite people.  It is clear that Miriam’s role is admired by our tradition through the Torah’s presentation of her death and the midrash on its result.

What is the relevant teaching about Miriam for today’s world?  Perhaps we can conclude that leadership filled only by men cannot possibly be complete.  We need women to provide leadership as well; for their perspective is the best way to balance the how men lead.  Indeed, given what we are learning about the reality of genders in today’s world, perhaps what we need is true gender diversity providing societal leadership. The name of this week’s parashahis Beshalach, which means “it came to pass.”  May it come to pass that we improve the content and quality of our leadership through diversity.  That will evolve our culture in a very positive way.

 

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This week’s parashah, Va’eira, begins with God introducing a different name to Moses than God did to the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Exodus:6:2,3 states, “God spoke to Moses and said to him, I am יְהוָֽה (yod, hey, vav, hey).  I appeard to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name יְהוָֽה .”  We generally read this name as “Adonai”.

The difference between the two name is significant and there is interesting discussion as to why the name revealed to Moses was not revealed to the Patriarchs.  The letters yod hey vav heyof the name revealed to Moses contain the root letters for the verb “to be (exist).”  In last week’s Torah portion, when Moses met God at the burning bush, and Moses asks what name should he reveal as God’s name, God answers, “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” which means, “I will be what I will be.” The implication is that God is to great to be defined by a name, rather the identity of Gd should be that which is eternally existent.  So we could then interpret God’s statement of “I am yod hey vav hey” as a statement, “I am Eternal.”

In the beginning segment of this parashah, God is informing Moses what God will be insuring is accomplished as Moses works to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.  God makes the statement of  “I am Eternal” three more times in this opening segment of the Torah portion. This is not an unusual use of the statement in important interactions with Moses.  In Leviticus chapter 19, which reveals the holiness code, the phrase “I am Eternal” is a consistent ending piece to many of the commandments.

The Torah analyst Cassuto says the name of El Shaddai is often associated with the attribute of fertility, which is why it is so relevant to Abraham and Sarah, who end up with a child at such an old age (see Genesis 17:1,2).  The name of yod hey vav heyis more connected to the fulfillment of promises, exactly the context that Moses is being assured of in his first interactions with God.

In Exodus 6:6,7, and 8 there are indeed significant promises God makes to Moses about the future of the Isaelites.  Here they are:

  • hotzeiti– I will bring you out from the labors
  • hitzalti – I will deliver you from Egyptian bondage
  • ga’alti– I will redeem you with an outstretched arm
  • lakachti– I will take you to be my people
  • heiveiti– I will bring you to the promised land

Jewish tradition considers the first four to have been fulfilled.  Those four are the basis for the four part structure of our Passover seder.  The number 4 is also the basis for the four questions, the four sons of different style.  The fifth promise, “I will bring you to the promised land” connects to the fifth cup of wine left for Elijah, representing the hope for fulfillment in the future.

The typical question asked today is, how is the fifth promise not fulfilled with the existence of the state of Israel, our promised land?  A rabbinic explanation is that the fifth cup represents the messianic vision of an age of peace.  For now the promise is not fulfilled because Israel is not at peace.

There are two elements of conflict we can draw from this.  The obvious first one is the constant violent attacks by terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbullah.  Until that is resolved, we cannot say Israel exists in peace.  With the rise of anti-Semitism, we could add that this also applies to Israel as the name applies to all of the Jewish people in the world.  The second reality is the inability for Israelis, in fact Jews in general, cannot seem to be at peace with each other.  If we look at the five promises made at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we must say that God did wonderful things by freeing us from slavery, the authoritarianism of Egypt, saving us from the Sea of Reeds, and by taking us into a covenantal relationship.  But wouldn’t God have done us a bigger favor by teaching just teaching us how to get along with each other?

The Torah exhibits a long history of our people not getting along with each other.  The Israelites doubted Moses would actually get them out of Egypt.  Just after they did and crossed the Sea of Reeds, watching the Egyptian army drown, they began to complain about not having water.  The Torah is filled with Israelites’ complaints: water, food, boredom with eating manna, the trip back to Canaan being too long.   Korach, being jealous of Moses’ relation with God, rebels against him and Aaron.  Did God really want to hear all the moaning of these children of God?  Perhaps that is why God seems to be the absentee parent and Moses the au pair.  The Israelites never learned to play well with each other.

Sadly, the lack of peace in the Jewish world exists today.  Politically, the general political polarization has created deeper divides in the American Jewish community.  Yet the deeper source of conflict is the incredible number of religious movements in our small world Jewish population.  There are a couple of dozen factions in the Chasidic world, some of whom completely condemn not only non orthodox Jews, but other Chasidic communities.  This is in addition to the general conflict between the Haredi and progressive Jews. There are even conflicts in the non orthodox Jewish world, as some who have more radical views condemn those who do not agree with them.

Rabbinic tradition recognizes this weakness, not just among Jews, but among all people.  Consider this teaching from Pirkei Avot 4:3 “Do not despise any man and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no man who has not his hour and there is no thing that has not its place.” In greater detail, there are teachings that the people of Israel (worldwide Judaism) must care for each other.

What generations of rabbinic teaching stress is that our coming to the Promised Land is not God’s failure, but our failure.  God has given us the opportunity to truly obtain it.  But the responsibility lies with us.  Moses’ life is one of growth, of getting the chance from God to help the people of Israel and doing it.  He left a narrow form of life caring for a flock of sheep to realizing the necessity he had.  Moses learned his life was transient and God was eternal, yet he accepted a path.  If we can model Moses just a little, we can move us towards our Promised Land.

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How do we fare when called upon to face unpleasant truths?  How do we manage that call to do a difficult, seemingly endless task?  How deep is our empathy?  This is the essence of what Moses is facing at the burning bush theophany in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot.

Exodus 3:6 says, “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”  That raises a theological question.  If Judaism teaches God has no physical form, what was Moses afraid to look at? Cassuto points out that the Torah is careful not to imply a physical form, just that Moses knew God was presenting some kind of vision, and Moses was afraid to look at it.  However, Moses listens very attentively.  So he is receptive to hearing God’s message, but is clearly missing something.  Moses will accept the mission, but we can say he does so somewhat “blindly.”

Malbim takes the analysis of Moses hiding his face a bit further.  By hiding his face, Moses shows he is not ready for a complete relationship with God. Malbim says that the Hebrew verb meihabit is not seeing so much as giving full concentration on something.  Hiding his face is really Moses retreating into the material world, not able to spiritually and intellectually comprehend God.  The material world is kind of his safety net.  He hears God’s commands.  On some levels he understands what is being demanded of him.  But he is not ready for what eventually will be “knowing God panim el panim(face to face).” It is very important to note the intellectual component of the human/God relationship implied by Malbim.  Meeting God “face to face” is intellectually as well as spiritually demanding.

Did Moses act properly by hiding his face?  Sages who argue he did not say God would have shown him what was above and what was below – the secrets of existence (Shemot Rabbah 1:27).  Malbim’s commentary seems to agree with this by adding Moses was not ready for ultimate truth.  Ba’al Haturim, however, takes a slightly different tack.  He says that had Moses looked into God’s presence at the bush and asked for relief of the Israelites’ suffering, the exile would have been ended right then.  Israel would have been freed.  Thus we can ask, what is it Ba’al Haturim thinks Moses would have seen had he not hidden his face, that is, if he had tried to look at God face to face?

If we extend Ba’al Haturim’s reasoning, God would have shown Moses the full extent of Israel’s suffering in Egypt.  If we combine the comments of Cassuto, Malbim and Ba’al Haturim, we might construct this scenario.  Moses had seen the suffering of an individual Israelite, which led him to kill an Egyptian taskmaster.  Moses is listening to what God is trying to convey, but is not yet ready to grasp the enormity of Israel’s suffering.  Moses is not yet ready to perceive truth from God’s perspective – an intellectual and spiritual experience that is beyond him at the time of the call to his mission.  Moses is just human.  Trying to understand the full scale of human suffering and ultimate truth is a tall order. But Moses DOES listen, so he begins a path to lead the Israelites and finally know God “face to face.”

We can put reaction to the rise of anti-Semitism today in a similar context of Moses’ theophany.  Like Moses, we are obsessed with each incident as it happens in our individualized manner.  These include the shooting at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, the shooting in Poway, the shooting in Jersey City, and the knifing in Monsey, NY – just to name a few. Further, we tend to analyze them strictly on our political backgrounds and perspectives:  are we liberals or conservatives, Republicans or Democrats – just to name the obvious examples.

We are quick to declare that the dominant form of anti-Semitism is on the opposite side of our political belief.  We are afraid to look at the whole picture, that there is hatred of Jews coming from across all the political, religious, and ethnic spectrums.  I read articles written by liberals who refuse to see the seriousness of anti-Semitism from certain people whose general political stands they support.  I read the same approach from conservative writers, who also stupidly condemn Jews like George Soros for his liberal approaches using anti-Semitic tropes.  I have yet to read a condemnation of pastor Rick Wiles by right wing Christians.  Wiles claims the attempt to impeach Trump is a “Jew coup.”  Meanwhile, those on the left use “intersectionality” to justify any anti-Israel approach, saying that Israel is an oppressive country and therefore Jews who support Israel can be condemned.  This opens the door to left wing anti-Semitism.

Like Moses, we are over focused on what is in our own minds instead of truly trying to “look at God face to face,” which means starting to see the larger picture, the full extent of what Jews must be facing today.  The best article on anti-Semitism that I have read is from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who gives a good insight not only into hatred of Jews, but racism and bigotry in general.  https://www.jta.org/2020/01/02/opinion/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks-the-keys-to-understanding-american-anti-semitism-and-fighting-back?utm_content=buffer81f6b&utm_medium=social&utm_source=jtafacebook&utm_campaign=social&fbclid=IwAR3zqO4Nyr2Z0crZGRjBfrM2yHkYUf1hCeq6s2g-B5cnc5KAYqO-Ha2KRng

If, like Moses, we learn to look at God “face to face” and not just hide our face (really our minds), then we will see a much larger picture.  This picture not only includes the depth and diversity of anti-Semitic sources, but also the depth and diversity of those who are ready to stand with us Jews as we fight bigotry.  While a number of the New York attacks on Chasidic Jews are from blacks, the vast bulk of African Americans are deeply caring people who just want bigotry to end.  While the terrorism in the Middle East against Israel is through anti-Semitic Muslim groups (e.g. Hamas), I have met so many Muslims in America who stand with the Jewish people against hatred.  While there are people on the left wing who produce anti-Semitic narratives, the vast majority of liberals can be defined as liberal because they very strongly condemn oppression of Jews.  While some of the most violent anti-Semitic actions have come from right wingers, and there are increasing numbers of white nationalists who stress their hatred of Jews; most American conservatives fiercely condemn anti-Semitism.  If we are truly trying to see God, we will not only see those who hate Jews from all sides, but the vast number of those who will stand with us as our friends.  If we also hear all of these people’s pains and sufferings, and stand with them like they will stand with us, we will gain, like Moses, a deeper understanding of God.

God’s call to Moses at the bush is not about forcing a religious ideology upon the Egyptians.  It is not about violent coercion of any kind.  It is a call to lead a group of people to freedom, to alleviate suffering. When we hear the pain and suffering of others, we are starting to perceive God’s voice.  If we look at the truth of how humans act – the good and the bad – we have taken a step on the path to know God.  Ultimately there can be no hiding of our faces.  If we look into the vision God provides, if we really understand what we are being shown, then, when we dare to look at God face to face – we will find our own face staring back at us.

 

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What does a blessing actually mean?  If we offer a blessing to another person, are we simply wishing them well or are we trying to get them to contemplate a perspective unlike they way they have thought and acted?  In this week’s Torah portion Vayachi, Jacob delivers blessings for his sons.  Yet, when we read them, we wonder if these are truly blessings.  Here is the beginning from Genesis 49:1 – 9.  I am showing the Hebrew in the first two verses.                                                                                                                            וַיִּקְרָ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶל־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֵאָֽסְפוּ֙ וְאַגִּ֣ידָה לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם בְּאַחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים׃

Vayikra Ya’akov el-banav vayomer ha’asfu v’agidah lachem et asher-yikra etchem ba’acharit hayamim.

1)  And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.                                                                                       הִקָּבְצ֥וּ וְשִׁמְע֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְשִׁמְע֖וּ אֶל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל אֲבִיכֶֽם׃

Hikavtzu v’shim’u b’nai Ya’akov v’shim’u el-Yisra’el avichem.

2) Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father:

3)  Rueben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellence of power;

4)  Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it, mounting my bed.

5)  Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords.

6) Oh my soul, do not come into their council; to their assembly, let my honor not be united; for in their anger, they slew a man, and in their wanton lamed an ox.

7) Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and they wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide the in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

8)  Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be in the neck of your enemies; yourfather’s children shall bow down in your presence.

9)  Judah is a lion’s cub, from the prey, my son, you are gone up; he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?

We can see from the beginning of Jacob’s “blessings” for his sons, the diversity in content, reproving for bad actions, praise for some sons, and predictions to their future. However, the predictions are not for their individual futures, but for the tribes who will descend from each of them. Indeed, we can read this as Jacob’s teaching on the developent from being an individual to a tribe, a society, even a nation.  One hint is the use of two names, Jacob and Israel.  It is Jacob who is calling his sons together for their blessings and followed by the name Israel, when they are told to listen to their father’s words of analysis and prophesy of the future.  We will expand on this, but first let’s review the improper deeds done by the sons receiving their reproofs.

Reuben, Jacob’s first born, laid with his father’s concubine, Bilhah, who was the mother of a number of Reuben’s brothers.  What is worse, he did this just after Jacob’s wife Rachel had died.  Simeon and Levi reacted violently to the incident with their sister Dinah, who was raped by Shechem, but was in love with her and wanted to marry her.  While Jacob agreed to the marriage if everyone in the town of Shechem would be dedicated to God (and the men were to be circumcised to officially proclaim that), Simeon and Levi slaughtered all the men while they were recovering from their circumcisions.  Jacob’s reproof of Simeon and Levi is a condemnation of their excessive anger, cruelty, and violence.

A key question is how will Jacob’s sons, and their descendents, properly direct their lives as they move from individuals to a nation, the nation of Israel?  In midrash Genesis Rabbah 98:2 3 three rabbis, Juden, Pinchas, and Abun, all interpret the Hebrew word el(look at the first two verses in Hebrew) to actually mean “God,” as Elnot only means “to” but also is a Hebrew word for “God.”  Rabbi Juden interprets the beginning of verse 49:1 to mean “And Jacob called God to be with his sons.”

In Genesis Rabbah 98:3 Rabbis Juden and Pinchas have a slightly different interpretation of who is being referred to by “God.”  Juden says it is the God of Jacob (their individual father) who should be the God of Israel (the eventual nation).  Pinchas teaches the sons must be honoring their father, and his teachings, at the same level they would honor God.  In either case we can draw a significant lesson very applicable to us.

Judaism is not only about the respectability of individuality, but the necessity to place our desires and thoughts behind what is necessary to create a successful society, community, nation.  Reuben’s action is seen as simply selfish, the desire to have sex with a woman despite her relationship with his own father.  While Simeon and Levi were justified in having anger over what happened to their sister, their reaction was a violent punishment way beyond the guilty person, but victimizing all the men of the town of Shechem.  They did not accept the attempt of Shechem to correct things and create a way to cooperate.

You can see the parallel in this world through entries in social media.   So many people refuse to consider a different point of view.  I have read so many nasty comments on FaceBook by people whose only interest is to condemn those who have a different perspective than them.  I never see a post of forgiveness for a wrongdoing, or apologies for demeaning others. It is also clear that so many of today’s problems can be traced to personal, political desires and egos as opposed to what is best for the community.  The assumption is that the personal belief opinion is best and NOT true listening to the approach of those who think differently, even friends.

How does God’s presence (as depicted by Genesis Rabbah midrash) impact these problems?  First, acknowledging God forces us to realize we are part of something much bigger and beyond ourselves.  Second, if we see God as a parent/creator, we know we must respect what exists and work to improve our larger family – the nation of our Jewish people and thus, the world. Are our actions creating conflicts or attempting to create understanding?  Judaism allows disagreement on topics but makes it clear that ALL perspectives are acknowledged by God.  We can stand up to defend ourselves but must balance our aggressiveness with kindness.

What was the response of Jacob’s sons according to these midrashim?  It is taught they recited the words of the Sh’ma, “Adonai our God, Adonai is one.”  Despite the diverse “blessings” each brother received from their father, they acknowledged a need to come together in a divine way.  The Hebrew of the Sh’ma uses two different names of God, which shows in its own way that diversity should not prevent unity.  Jacob’s response is, “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed,” “Blessed is the name of the glorious majesty forever and ever.

What is a blessing? It is a direction away from sin to a hope that we will find a moral and divine path in our future.

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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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