My oldest child started college this fall. Eleven and a half years ago, toward the last day of kindergarten, she came home from school and told us that her teachers had taught her class the word “bittersweet.” One moment, I was marveling at her perception and sensitivity as a six year old. The next moment, I left her in her dorm room. And now, Hanukkah approaches and she is far from home.
This distance, of both time and space, saddens me. And while I recognize both its inevitably and its necessity, I wonder, I have often wondered, what is the right amount of distance between us?
As this week’s parasha begins, Jacob and Joseph are the type of father and son between whom there is no space. Joseph is the son of Jacob’s old age, Joseph hardly knew his mother, who died when he was a young child. Jacob loves him best, giving him special gifts. Joseph responds in kind, comfortably tattling on his brothers, telling Jacob everything about them. Indeed, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that Joseph does not have peers among his brothers - early in the parasha, his brothers are described as the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, emphasizing their different mothers, rather than their shared father. All of the other brothers had grown up with siblings, but Benjamin was much younger, and not a companion to him. Jacob, it seems, is Joseph’s best friend.
Two moments in the text highlight the trust and closeness that Jacob and Joseph experienced in the first 17 years of Joseph’s life. After Joseph dreams his second dream, the Torah tells us:
וַיְקַנְאוּ־ב֖וֹ אֶחָ֑יו, וְאָבִ֖יו שָׁמַ֥ר אֶת־הַדָּבָֽר.
His brothers envied him, and his father kept the matter in mind. (Gen 37:11)
What is the “d'var/matter” that Jacob kept in mind? Many commentators believe that it was the matter of the dreams. For example, Sforno writes:
He remembered it [kept it in mind] because he thought that the dream reflected what would in fact occur. In fact, his father was looking forward to the fulfillment of Joseph’s dream.
In this reading, Jacob is so closely tied up with Joseph, that he not only can’t imagine that Joseph’s dream will not be fulfilled, he wants it to be fulfilled.
But - perhaps the “d'var/matter” that Jacob is keeping in mind is the matter of the brothers’ jealousy of Joseph. The father thinks to himself, “This is not good. I need to figure out the right way to address this.” And there that thought sits, until an opportunity presents itself to do something about it. Perhaps this phrase is teaching us, not that Jacob’s and Joseph’s dreams are one and the same, but that this is this moment when Jacob realizes - my son and I have grown too close.
Soon, the problem of emotional overidentification is temporarily resolved. The next verse reads…
The brothers went away to tend their father’s sheep at Shechem. (Gen 37:12)
Commentators note that Shechem is a dangerous place at this moment. The brothers have just ransacked the whole city, and they are hated there. So why have they chosen to take their fathers’ flocks a great distance to pasture there? As the editor on Sefaria notes [on the translation of Chizkuni’s comment], perhaps
...the reason they had chosen to do so was to show their father that they were less worried about the local population than about Joseph lording it over them.
By removing themselves from their father and their doted upon younger brother, the brothers have made use of the tool of distance. Maybe Jacob thinks, here it is, here is the moment to address the “d'var,” I’ll send Joseph to his brothers, away from me, they will be forced to work it out, and Joseph will learn, even if for a short time, who he is without me. The text reads:
Israel [Jacob] said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” He [Joseph] answered, “Hineni, I am ready.” (Gen 37:13)
According to biblical scholar Yoram Hazony, the phrase hineni/ here I am, “...is used to indicate devotion and readiness to act in response to God’s call - often in the face of extraordinary hardship” (The Philosophy of the Hebrew Bible, page 78). Hinenis do not always come in response to a call that comes directly from God, but they do always come in response to a call from a loved one. This particular hineni is unusual. In other cases, the person responding hineni, does not know what is going to be asked of him; but Joseph already knows what Jacob wants him to do before he responds. Given the danger of the situation, from both the people of Shechem and his own brothers, perhaps, in Joseph’s case, his willingness to heed the call is all the more remarkable for the fact that he knows what he is agreeing to do. Joseph’s hineni reveals either extraordinary devotion to his father, or extraordinary naivete, or probably both.
I imagine, when faced with this response from his beloved son, Jacob may have hesitated, or needed to take a moment to gather himself, before sending the child off:
And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron… (Gen 37:14)
It is in the space away from his father that Joseph suffers the most. Perhaps the tragedy could have been avoided altogether if the brothers had not been so far from their father. Did Jacob make a mistake? In the spaces between the three verses in which Joseph's brothers went away and Jacob sent Joseph to them, should Jacob have made a different choice? Could he have handled the davar, the jealousy that was partly of his own making, in a way that would not have caused his family so much pain?
It is impossible to know. We do know that Joseph grew the most when he was distanced from his father. It was during the time that they were apart that he transformed himself from a selfish boy dreamer to a thoughtful interpreter of dreams. Yet, we must not forget, it is also because of the time he spent close to his father, that he became the man who would say to Potiphar’s wife, “How then should I commit such a great wickedness, and sin against God?” and to the butler and cupbearer, “Why were your faces sad today?” and to his brothers, “I am Joseph; is my father still alive?”
Rabbi Miriam Greenblatt
High School Learning Specialist
Confusing Torah for confusing times: God’s messenger engages in physical struggle with Yaakov, blessing him but also causing him a serious and lasting injury. (Gen. 32:26,32) Esav, who had sworn to kill Yaakov (27:41-42), running to hug and kiss him in a tearful reunion. (33:4)
The first encounter, it seems to me, is more relatable at this moment, though an imperfect analogy to say the least. The Jewish people have suffered serious injury, a trauma that will never completely heal, and we cannot help but wonder about God’s intentions with us. We pray that there is yet a beracha to be extracted from God after what we have been through; that not only Yaakov, but we his descendants, can grab hold of and coerce God in this way. (32:27:30) May we, like Yaakov, can “struggle with God and humanity and prevail / כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל.” (32:29)
But the notion of reconciliation with a sworn enemy, one so extreme that the conflict originates from the womb? (25:22) Hard to believe. Then, as they grow older, the differences in their temperaments endure: Esav the hunting outdoorsman, Yaakov the cerebral homebody. (25:27) And yet, can their reunion still somehow give hope that opposites can feel kinship, that hate can give way to reconciliation, even if not for us now, even if not with our enemies today, perhaps for another day?
One key to both episodes of encounter and confrontation is the emphasis on them being face to face, which represents openness and vulnerability. Following the first, “Yaakov named the place Peni’el, because ‘I saw an angel face to face, and my soul was saved / וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי.” (Gen. 32:31) Yaakov then relates the second, his encounter with Esav, to that first one, when he would like Esav to accept his gifts and Esav says no thank you. Yaakov says: “If indeed I have found favor in your eyes, then take my gift from my hand, because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of an angel, and you have accepted me / אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֥ מִנְחָתִ֖י מִיָּדִ֑י כִּ֣י עַל־כֵּ֞ן רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַתִּרְצֵֽנִי.” (Gen. 33:10)
The interaction between the two brothers also indicates how the two of them had to fundamentally change in order to reunite. Esav, who previously had pledged to kill his brother, now shows only love, as mentioned above. (33:4) On the flipside, the beracha that Yaakov received from his father Yitzchak promised him the land’s bounty and superiority over others, all of whom would bow down to him. (27:28-29) But in his encounter with Esav, Yaakov says “take now my blessing / קַח־נָ֤א אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי֙,” (Gen. 33:11) – a double meaning not lost on Esav to be sure – and it is Yaakov and his entire family who bow down to Esav. (33:3,6-7)
The two brothers still of course have their significant differences. Yaakov is careful to keep his emotional distance from Esav, consistent with his cautious personality; in conversation with Esav he refers to himself as “your servant / עַבְדֶּֽךָ” and to Esav as “my master / אֲדֹנִֽי.” Esav, true to his more impulsive personality, first takes the risk of hugging and kissing his brother, and in conversation refers to Yaakov as “my brother / אָחִ֕י.” Even after hearing Esav refer to him in this way, however, Yaakov still calls Esav “my master / אֲדֹנִ֤י” four more times. (33:8-9,13-15)
And, of course, in the end they go their own separate ways: “Esav returned on that day on his way / וַיָּ֩שָׁב֩ בַּיּ֨וֹם הַה֥וּא עֵשָׂ֛ו לְדַרְכּ֖וֹ שֵׂעִֽירָה,” while “Yaakov traveled to Sukkot / וְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ נָסַ֣ע סֻכֹּ֔תָה.” (Gen. 33:16-17) Seen another way, after their brief time back together, they return to the distance that always existed between them, and will continue to exist between them. They return to their own ways.
In this encounter between Yaakov and Esav, just as in the encounter between Yaakov and God’s messenger, no claim can be made to a perfect analogy to today, to lessons readily learned and applied. Confusing Torah for confusing times. May we yet see peace, when the time is right, with those who are our adversaries and could be our partners.
Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Usually as I prepare to write this Dvar Torah, I spend time studying the weekly parasha and its commentaries, searching for a pasuk (verse) or a story that feels revelatory or relevant to the moment. This week I did not need to open a Humash. I could recite the relevant pasuk and its interpretation by heart:
וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה (בראשית כ״ח:י)
רש״י: לֹא הָיָה צָרִיךְ לִכְתֹּב אֶלָּא וַיֵּלֶךְ יַעֲקֹב חָרָנָה, וְלָמָּה הִזְכִּיר יְצִיאָתוֹ? אֶלָּא מַגִּיד שֶׁיְּצִיאַת צַדִּיק מִן הַמָּקוֹם עוֹשָׂה רֹשֶׁם
Jacob left Beersheva and went to Haran. (Genesis 28:10)
Why, Rashi asks, did the Torah need to say “Jacob left Beersheva”? Why not just say “Jacob went to Haran?” We already know he is in Beersheva. The reason is this: when a righteous person leaves a place, it leaves an impression.
When a righteous person leaves a place, it leaves an impression. When many righteous people leave a place, it leaves an even greater impression.
I feel that I am living in this pasuk all day, every day right now. I am living this pasuk in my personal life, grieving the loss of a 22 year old nephew, which has made an indelible mark on my family. We are living this pasuk as a Jewish people, with the names and faces of the hostages impressed upon our hearts as well as the names and faces of family members, friends and Heschel alumni who have left home to serve their country in the IDF. And we are living in this pasuk as human beings, knowing that every day, more innocent people are leaving this world as the death count from the war grows.
I ask myself, how do I, how do we, move forward in this new reality? When Rabbi Sharon Brous was interviewed by Ezra Klein last week, she shared a mishna about the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage holidays, during the time when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. When people entered the Temple Mount they would go through an entryway, turn to the right and circle the perimeter of the Temple courtyard. Except for “״מִּי שֶׁאֵרְעוֹ דָבָר — someone who had suffered a loss of some kind. That person would circle to the left. In this way, everyone had to stop the person who was grieving, look at them, ask מַה לְּךָ – tell me about what has happened to you — and offer them a blessing appropriate to their situation.
What else can we do right now but make sure we look into each other’s eyes, both literally and as a metaphor for really paying attention to how others are doing, and find the ways we are within our own abilities to offer each other blessing? Or as Rabbi Brous put it so beautifully:
“I think the rabbis kind of captured this very sacred and profound, psychological and spiritual tool for us, which is to say when we are suffering and when we’re hurting, we need to be seen by other people. We need somebody to say, tell me about your pain. Help me understand what’s going on for you. And we need to be blessed.”
It is exceptionally hard to do this when it feels like we are all מִּי שֶׁאֵרְעוֹ דָבָר — we are all the ones that something has happened to. And yet, I believe we can play different roles at different moments, sometimes taking our turn to be there for others and at other times, asking our loved ones to support us. As we turn towards Thanksgiving, I am tremendously grateful for the blessings that have been offered to me by this community and the many ways that people have asked me over the past weeks מה לך – how are you.
Rabbi Anne Ebersman
In what ways do our bodies absorb and reflect our life experiences, including the trials we endure? “When Yitzchak was old and his eyes were too dim to see,” we are told, “he called his older son Esav” / וַיְהִי כִּי־זָקֵן יִצְחָק וַתִּכְהֶיןָ עֵינָיו מֵרְאֹת וַיִּקְרָא אֶת־עֵשָׂו בְּנוֹ הַגָּדֹל.” (Gen. 27:1) While at first it is not apparent why we are told about Yitzchak’s sight impairment, later we learn why: his poor eyesight enables Rivkah and Yaakov to deceive him into believing he is Esav, causing Yitzchak to give Yaakov the firstborn’s blessing. The question arises, however, because Yitzchak would live another sixty years, why was his sight already dim?
The midrash teaches that the reason can be traced back to Yitzchak’s experience of being bound on the altar by his father: “When Avraham our patriarch bound his son on the altar, the ministering angels wept… Tears fell from their eyes into his eyes, and they had an effect on his eyes. When he grew old, his eyes dimmed / שֶׁבְּשָׁעָה שֶׁעָקַד אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ אֶת בְּנוֹ עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ בָּכוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת… וְנָשְׁרוּ דְּמָעוֹת מֵעֵינֵיהֶם לְתוֹךְ עֵינָיו, וְהָיוּ רְשׁוּמוֹת בְּתוֹךְ עֵינָיו, וְכֵיוָן שֶׁהִזְקִין כָּהוּ עֵינָיו.” Another relates to what Yitzchak might have seen in his near death experience; his dimmed sight was “a result of that sight: when Avraham our patriarch bound his son on the altar, Yitzchak directed his eyes heavenward and looked at the Divine Presence / דָּבָר אַחֵר, מֵרְאֹת, מִכֹּחַ אוֹתָהּ הָרְאִיָּה, שֶׁבְּשָׁעָה שֶׁעָקַד אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, תָּלָה עֵינָיו בַּמָּרוֹם וְהִבִּיט בַּשְּׁכִינָה.” (Gen. Rab. 65:10)
Modern commentaries understand this blindness more figuratively. As expounded in the book Sipurei Reishit edited by Tanya Tziyon, they see it as one of Yitzchak’s defining character attributes. (p. 354) For example, according to Burton Visotzky, Yitzchak was blind to his son Esav’s shortcomings throughout his life. In fact, the decision by Yitzchak to give Esav the first blessing followed immediately after we learn that Esav and his wife were “a source of bitterness to Yitzchak and Rivka / וַתִּהְיֶיןָ מֹרַת רוּחַ לְיִצְחָק וּלְרִבְקָה.” (Gen. 26:35) Yitzchak is also blind to his wife’s understanding that Yaakov is their true legacy. (Visotsky, Reading the Book, p. 127)
All of which led me to wonder: do we see this sort of carryover in others from early challenges to later events in their lives? The answer, it seems to me, is yes. Think back to the direct communications from God to Avraham: the command to “go forth / לֶךְ־לְךָ֛” requires him to leave his home; the destruction of Sdom and Amorah brings with it the specter of innocent victims; “take your son / קַח־נָ֠א אֶת־בִּנְךָ֨,” the binding of Yitzchak. Is it any wonder that Avraham perhaps reaches his limit for God’s calling? And so when the moment finally arrives for Avraham to hear good news from the heavens, his attention is hard to get. His name is called twice – “Avraham, Avraham / אַבְרָהָ֣ם | אַבְרָהָ֑ם!” – and on top of that the communication is from an angel and not directly from God, also perhaps in recognition of Avraham’s reluctance to hear from God again.
Finally, the same thing can be said about Yaakov. He runs from home after deceiving his father, and then his ability to run is taken from him when the angel he encounters “touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Yaakov’s hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him / וַיִּגַּ֖ע בְּכַף־יְרֵכ֑וֹ וַתֵּ֨קַע֙ כַּף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּהֵאָֽבְק֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ.” (Gen. 32:26) After that, “Yaakov settles down / וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב” (Gen. 37:1), and subsequently must rely on Yosef to find his other sons, with tragic results; must rely on their deceitful report of what happens without being able to check himself; and must rely on them to go to get food in Egypt. The body he uses to betray his father ends up betraying him.
What meaning can this have for us today, at a time of war, overwhelmed by a wave of complex challenges and emotions? In the first place, perhaps, to be intentional about what we see, what we hear, how we choose to engage in confrontation (or not). Knowing our limits, and being forgiving of ourselves – and others – for having them. And then understanding that what we experience now will stay with us. Let this not be a source of frustration or disappointment in ourselves; rather, let us gain inspiration from our ancestors, and comfort that we are linked in a tradition of people who feel, and remember, and endure.
Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
This week's Torah portion, Chayey Sarah, begins with Sarah’s death and ends with her son Yitzhak (Isaac) marrying Rivka (Rebecca). In the beginning of the Torah reading, Yitzhak is absent. He is not included in the mourning process that is described. Sarah dies and we read of Avraham’s efforts to find her a proper burial site. At the end of the Torah reading however, we learn that Yitzhak in fact has been mourning his mother’s death. The closing verse of the parsha states:
וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק הָאֹ֙הֱלָה֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת־רִבְקָ֛ה וַתְּהִי־ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֖ה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ׃
Yitzhak then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rivka as his wife. Yitzhak loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.
Anat Yisraeli, an Israeli author and teacher who contributed to the feminist aggadic interpretation of the Torah called Dirshuni, plays with the Hebrew word הָאֹ֙הֱלָה֙ (ha-ohela, which means to the tent) and suggests that instead we should read the word as אֱלֹהָּהּ (elo-ha, which means her God). In other words, Yisraeli is guiding us to read this closing verse as about more than Yitzhak consummating his marriage in his mother’s tent, but rather, Yitzhak bringing his new beloved into the traditions of his mother - and most importantly to understand and encounter Sarah’s God.
Yisraeli elaborates and teaches that Avraham was not the only one who encountered God, but that Sarah encountered the same God in her tent and had her own opportunity for revelation. And this experience of revelation brought Sarah much joy as is evident in the verse where Sarah learns that she is about to birth a child. The Torah states:
וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ
This verse is often translated as “Sarah laughed to herself.” I understand Yisraeli’s translation to be “And Sarah laughed in her midst.” In other words, Sarah laughed, was joyful, in the presence of this God who shared with her the good news of her (Sarah’s) upcoming pregnancy. When Rivka entered Sarah’s tent, she too experienced this revelation and this joy and was immediately able to connect with Yitzhak’s past, present and future. This brough Yitzhak great comfort and he was able to finally be consoled.
Last week, we read the story of the Akedat Yitzhak (Binding of Isaac). That story ends with Yitzhak and his father Avraham returning from Mount Moriah separately. Different from the way they walked towards the mountain, they are no longer unified. Midrash teaches that when Sarah learned about what transpired at Mount Moriah, she cried and that cry led to her death. I read Yisraeli as offering us a new ending to the Akedah story. Yitzhak must have left that mountain bereft. What God was he to believe in? His father could no longer be his religious guide and now neither could his mother. This is an incredibly lonely experience. When Rivka entered the tent, she experienced the fullness of Yitzhak’s tradition and was able to reconnect him to the joy that his parents’ faith offered.
I dedicate this teaching to the parents and children who have been taken hostage and who are yearning to be reconnected and reunited with each other. May that happen very soon.
Rabbi Dahlia Kronish
High School Associate Head
What could possibly be more important than a direct encounter with God? “Rabbi Yehuda says in the name of Rav: welcoming guests is more important than welcoming the shechina (God’s presence), as it is written, ‘He said: My Lord, if I found favor in your eyes, please do not bypass your servant / אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: גדולה הכנסת אורחין מהקבלת פני שכינה. דכתיב ׳וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.'" (Bavli Shabbat 127a) This teaching is based on the opening to this week’s parsha of VaYera. As Avraham sits recovering from his brit milah, “he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing near him, and he saw and ran to greet them from the entrance of the tent, and bowed down to the ground. And he said, ‘Adonai, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant’ / וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה. וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַֽעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ.” (Gen 18:3)
At the peshat level, the straightforward contextual meaning of the word “Adonai” is that Avraham is referring deferentially to his three visitors as “my lords.” The teaching of Rav, however, looks back at the first verse of the parsha, which opens with “the Lord appeared to him in Elonei Mamre / וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א” (Gen. 18:1), and from there understands that Avraham was already in a direct encounter with God before his three guests appeared. When Avraham saw them, he essentially said to God: ‘hold that thought and please wait for me here, while I go take care of my three visitors.’ Incredible!
Avraham, our paragon of faith, pushes the pause button with God to take care of others. These past three weeks, so many acts of hesed have been done to support others on levels both micro and macro, emotionally and physically, in person and from a distance. This, it seems, has been part of our healing, as it was for Avraham. And maybe, alongside all we have done for others, we have hit the pause button with God, perhaps out of confusion, not understanding how God could have allowed this to happen, perhaps needing some distance from God. In asking God to wait for us in order to take care of others, we are in excellent company.
Of course, the context of Avraham’s actions – his pause with God – is so different. It is important to remember, though, that Avraham’s faith was not so simple. Rather, the Torah describes a faith that evolves, as Nahum Sarna points out. Early on, Avram expresses doubt first about having a child: “Lord God, what will You give me, since I am going childless / וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱהֹוִה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י.” (Gen. 15:2) He then voices doubts about having a land: “He said, ‘Lord God, how will I know that I will inherit it?’ / וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱהֹוִ֔ה בַּמָּ֥ה אֵדַ֖ע כִּ֥י אִֽירָשֶֽׁנָּה.” The actions of Avraham in binding Yitzchak seem to show tremendous faith, but God sees fear as the main motivating factor there. (Gen. 22:12) It isn’t until towards the end of Avraham’s life that he shows the complete faith we normally associate with him, when he sends Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak. He says: “The Lord, God of the heavens – Who took me from my father's house and from the land of my birth, Who spoke to me and swore to me, saying, ‘To your seed will I give this land’ – He will send His angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there / יְהֹוָ֣ה | אֱלֹהֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֨ר לְקָחַ֜נִי מִבֵּ֣ית אָבִי֘ וּמֵאֶ֣רֶץ מֽוֹלַדְתִּי֒ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּר־לִ֜י וַֽאֲשֶׁ֤ר נִשְׁבַּע־לִי֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לְזַ֨רְעֲךָ֔ אֶתֵּ֖ן אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את ה֗וּא יִשְׁלַ֤ח מַלְאָכוֹ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֛ה לִבְנִ֖י מִשָּֽׁם.” (Gen. 24:7) (Sarna, Understanding Genesis, pp. 163-64)
One final note, regarding the emotions of Sarah in the beginning of this week’s parsha. When Sarah finds out that at her age she will still have a child, “Sarah laughed inside / וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה בְּקִרְבָּ֣הּ.” (Gen. 18:12) God does not seem to appreciate this reaction, and brings it to Avraham’s attention: “the Lord said to Avraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh…is anything precluded from the Lord?’ / לָ֣מָּה זֶּה֩ צָֽחֲקָ֨ה שָׂרָ֜ה…הֲיִפָּלֵ֥א מֵֽיהֹוָ֖ה דָּבָ֑ר.’” (Gen. 18:13-14) Yet, when she is called on her reaction, “Sarah denied it, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ because she was afraid / וַתְּכַחֵ֨שׁ שָׂרָ֧ה לֵאמֹ֛ר לֹ֥א צָחַ֖קְתִּי כִּ֣י יָרֵ֑אָה.” (Gen. 18:15) Hanan Porat suggests that maybe she wasn’t trying to deceive God; maybe she wasn’t attuned to her internal reaction. Her internal laughter, he says, was not only hidden from all others except God, it was also hidden from her, suppressed by her fear. (Porat, Me’at min ha’or, Bereishit, pp. 118-19)
And so here we are, emulating Avraham with our acts of hesed, which are important enough that we would even be justified in prioritizing them over a direct encounter with God. For us, of course, our relationship with God is not separate from our relationships with others; our faith and acts of hesed are not mutually exclusive but complementary, both embedded in and intertwined with one another. And, through it all, we work so hard to keep many of our emotions hidden for the sake of functioning day to day. May God support us while our laughter (perhaps) remains hidden, and while so many of our emotions are known to God when we ourselves do not understand them or dare not even try to know them; and may we continue to have opportunities to do good for others and ourselves, with support from one another and God to guide our actions.
Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
שִׂים שָׁלוֹם טוֹבָה וּבְרָכָה חֵן וָחֶסֶד וְרַחֲמִים, עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל עַמֶּךָ.
Sim shalom tova u’veracha, chen va’chesed ve’rachamim, aleinu ve’al kol yisrael amecha.
Grant peace, goodness and blessing, grace, kindness and compassion on us and all your people Israel.
Thus begins the closing bracha in our Shacharit and Musaf Amidah. Of course, just this line alone warrants a full stop under the circumstances. Please God, grant us peace.
As the bracha continues, it offers us even more to consider during these times: “bless us, our Father – all of us as one – in the light of your countenance / בָּרְכֵנוּ אָבִינוּ כֻּלָּנוּ כְּאֶחָד בְּאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ.” Unity – achdut, literally oneness – has been a theme throughout these past three weeks within Israel and among Jews throughout the world.
Unity, however, does not mean uniformity, as this bracha subtly suggests when we ask God to bless us “as,” or “like,” one. We are not identical, and nevertheless united even with our differences. There is an additional explanation for this part of the bracha that connects with the parasha of Lech Lecha: when we ask to be blessed “as one,” we are actually referring to a specific person who we want our blessings to be like: Avraham. A singular individual, the one who set us on our path as Jews. And, in turn, God says that in whatever ways Avram is – and we are – blessed or cursed has implications for the world around us: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you / וַאֲבָרְכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר, וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.” (Gen. 12:3) May our blessings soon be what reverberate throughout the world again.
Thinking back to the conclusion of last week’s parasha, wouldn’t it have been more efficient for God to just adopt the builders of the Tower of Babel, instead of Avram? After all, they were already united around a single purpose and speaking a single language: “The Lord said, ‘they are one people, and they all have one language / וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָ֗ה הֵ֣ן עַ֤ם אֶחָד֙ וְשָׂפָ֤ה אַחַת֙ לְכֻלָּ֔ם.” (Gen. 11:6) However, did the opposite of adopting them: “The Lord scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth / וַיָּ֨פֶץ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם מִשָּׁ֖ם עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֑רֶץ.” (Gen. 11:8) What was the problem? Why wait for Avram to come along?
I think a possible answer to this question can be found in an untitled poem by Yehudah Amichai that echoes the bracha of Sim Shalom. He writes: “We are all of us the children of Avraham / But we are also the grandchildren of Terach, father of Avraham / אֲנַחְנוּ כֻּלָּנוּ בְּנִי אַבְרָהָם / אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ גַּם הַנְּכָדִים שֶׁל תֶּרַח, אָבִי אַבְרָהָם.” He goes on to say that just as Avraham turned the page on his father’s idolatrous traditions, so too should we perhaps turn the page on Avraham’s traditions. While I obviously do not agree with this sentiment, it does bring us perhaps to an intriguing answer to why God chose Avram rather than the builders of the Tower of Babel. God desired not a monolithic people, but a monotheistic people with texture, with different backgrounds and ideas. God wanted a people who are the children of Avraham and the grandchildren of Terach. Our unity, our identity, is not born of uniformity.
Today, the 12th of Cheshvan, marks the yahrzeit of Yitzchak Rabin z”l. His assassination is a constant reminder to us to respect differences and resolve our disagreements – even our most difficult and passionate ones – through dialogue and the democratic process. And today, at a time of war, the Jewish people are being reminded that even when we disagree, we still must share a fundamental commitment to each other; we must care about and for one another. A united Jewish people can overcome events even as tragic and difficult as what happened on October 7, and continue to happen. May God grant peace, goodness and blessing, grace, kindness and compassion on us and all your people Israel.
Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
An island of goodness in a sea of evil, is Noach: “Noach was a completely righteous man in his generations / נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו.” (Gen. 6:9) What qualifies him as “completely righteous / צַדִּיק תָּמִים?” In Ha’Emek Davar, the Netziv (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1893) explains that “‘righteous’ is about one’s relationship with God…and ‘completely righteous’ means one who is righteous with people / צדיק משמעותו הוא בין אדם לשמים…אבל צדיק תמים משמש שהוא צדיק גם בין אדם לחבירו.” This type of righteousness, he says, “had existed in previous generations until his, and he still was good towards the people of his generation.”
As the pasuk continues, we learn that the integrity of Noach created a special relationship with God: “Noach walked with God / אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹחַ.” Here too, the Netziv explains that therefore God saved Noach “at a time of danger when the world was a raging tempest…, and Noach overcame its nature to be good to other creatures.”
And yet something still felt wrong to Noach. Even with his goodness, even with God by his side, even after Noach survives the flood, even with God’s covenant that “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth / וְלֹא־יִכָּרֵת כל־בָּשָׂר עוֹד מִמֵּי הַמַּבּוּל וְלֹא־יִהְיֶה עוֹד מַבּוּל לְשַׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ” (Gen. 9:11), even after seeing “God’s bow in the clouds, that will serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth / אֶת־קַשְׁתִּי נָתַתִּי בֶּעָנָן וְהָיְתָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית בֵּינִי וּבֵין הָאָרֶץ׃” (Gen. 9:13) – even with all that – Noach still feels alone. And so the first thing he does is “plant a vineyard, and drank the wine and became drunk / וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם: וַיֵּשְׁתְּ מִן־הַיַּיִן וַיִּשְׁכָּר.” (Gen. 9:20-21)
So is that it? Tragedy, loss, and a salvation that does not salve the pain, despite a uniquely close relationship between Noach and God? This melancholia is, I think, expressed in a beautiful song by Roni Keinan and others called Flood. She sings:
If we survive the flood this time,
every smile will be different, affected.
If I go back over it again and again and again,
stay twenty years or until the end of the day.
We will have learned from every word how to wait, how to move on, and how to be careful.
אם נשרוד את המבול הפעם,
כל חיוך יהיה שונה, נגוע.
אם אחזור על זה עוד ועוד ועוד,
תשארי עשרים שנה או עד סוף היום.
למדנו לחכות ולוותר ואיך להיזהר, מכל מילה.
And still, of course we have hope, and anticipate better. There is perhaps no better symbol of hope in the story of Noach than the yonah, the dove that is sent out when the flood waters begin to recede and dry land first appears. “The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noach knew that the waters had decreased on the earth / וַתָּבֹא אֵלָיו הַיּוֹנָה לְעֵת עֶרֶב וְהִנֵּה עֲלֵה־זַיִת טָרָף בְּפִיהָ וַיֵּדַע נֹחַ כִּי־קַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ׃” (Gen. 8:11)
In a poem that has become a Shabbat zemer – a song sung at the Shabbat table – Yehudah HaLevi writes “The dove found a place to rest, and those without strength will rest there / יוֹנָה מָצְאָה בוֹ מָנוֹחַ וְשָׁם יָנוּחוּ יְגִיעֵי כֹחַ.” This last phrase, “those without strength will rest there / יוֹנָה מָצְאָה בוֹ מָנוֹחַ וְשָׁם יָנוּחוּ יְגִיעֵי כֹחַ” is the second half of pasuk from Iyov (3:17), the Book of Job. Here is the first half: “There the wicked cease from causing trouble ; שָׁם רְשָׁעִים חָדְלוּ רֹגֶז.” The Malbim (1809-1879) interprets this to mean a place that “one need not even ask for what is needed, wearying from always striving to obtain life’s necessities / בקשת צרכיו ההכרחיים אשר צריך ליגע תמיד להשיג מחייתו וצרכיו.”
May this be our tefillah, that we find ourselves a place to rest, a place where the wicked do not – cannot – trouble us and others, a place of rest for those weary from seeking the basic necessities of life, peace and security especially. We all need this place to different degrees, now more than ever.
Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Here and not here. So many of us feel here and not here. Functioning and broken. In profound pain and numb. And in this confused state, I hear echoes of our world at its Genesis, In the Beginning, Bereishit: “the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the unformed / וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם.” (Gen. 1:2) To some, like Bechor Shor, this means “that when the world was created in the beginning it was desolate and empty / כשהיתה נבראת הארץ, בתחלה היתה שממה וריקנית.” When the verse continues, however, we see that there is water: “and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water / וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם,” so it does not seem that emptiness is the best interpretation of “tohu va’vohu.” Better, I think, is the understanding of Seforno, that it was “a mixture of raw materials / דבר מורכב מחמר ראשון,” which Rabeinu Bachya describes as that “which had not yet been properly defined and therefore could not yet be named / הוא החמר שאין בו ממש ואין השם נתפס בו.” And this, it feels to me, is our emotional state right now: tohu va’vohu.
Thankfully, though, as I already mentioned, this is not where the verse ends, as it then says: “and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water / וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם.” According to this, what is the relationship between God and chaos in the world, in ourselves? Is God separate from it or in it with us? Chizkuni offers a not so reassuring interpretation: tohu va’vohu “is not said with regard to the heavens out of respect for the shechinah that dwells in them / לא נאמר לשון זה גבי שמים אלא מפני כבוד שכינה ששורה בהם.” But, he notes, “according to the Talmud, the meaning here is that the heavens also were created with the tohu va’vohu / ולפי סברת התלמוד משמע שגם הם תהו ובהו נבראו.” As the Talmud teaches: “Rav Yehuda said in Rav’s name: “Ten things were created on the first day, and they are: heaven and earth; tohu va’vohu, light and darkness; wind and water; the length of day and the length of night / וְאָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר רַב: עֲשָׂרָה דְּבָרִים נִבְרְאוּ בְּיוֹם רִאשׁוֹן, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ, אוֹר וָחֹשֶׁךְ, רוּחַ וּמַיִם, מִדַּת יוֹם וּמִדַּת לַיְלָה.” (Bavli Chag. 12a) In other words: God was then, and is now, alongside us in our state of tohu va’vohu.
Is there a way out? Bereishit signals hope that there is. First, with that water God is hovering over. Water represents life, “mayim chayim / מַיִם חַיִּים,” as we read over and over again in Tanach, starting with Yitzchak when he digs his wells. (Gen. 26:19) It is a source of sustenance and also a purifying force. And then an even more dramatic sign of hope: light. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light / וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִי־א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר.” (Ex. 1:3) The question is asked: why not start the world with light, why create it? Explains the Kli Yakar: “the verse informs us that if at any future time it should happen that, through the actions of the wicked, the world will go back to being chaos, it should not be considered a change in the creation; but rather the world will go back to how it was, since it is its nature to be chaos and void and darkness. And through the actions of the righteous, the Holy Blessed One overturned its nature and created light for the righteous / והודיע לנו הכתוב שאם יקרה בזמן מן הזמנים שע״י מעשה הרשעים יחזור העולם לתהו לא יהיה נחשב שינוי בבריאה אלא יחזור העולם לכמות שהיה כי מטבעו להיות תהו ובהו וחשך, וע״י מעשה הצדיקים עשה הקב״ה הפך טבעו וברא האור לצדיקים.”
Today, this week, there has been much darkness. The world, however, has not lost - never loses - its potential for light, even when it feels, as it does now, that the world has shifted beneath our feet, that it is fundamentally changed. There is of course so much pain even among signs of hope. A midrash teaches that “everything that has been created in the world is also in every person…, and there are rivers in people just like the world’s rivers: tears / ויצר באדם כל מה שברא בעולמו…נחלים בעולם נחלים באדם: אלו דמעות.” (Avot DeRabi Natan 31) Even alongside that pain, and with those tears, may we again soon see, for our sake as a people and a nation - as well as the world’s - the light of the righteous, a light stronger than any we have ever seen before, illuminating the world anew.
Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
How do the values of humility, reflection and forgiveness from the Yamim Noraim continue to resonate through the holiday of Sukkot? Originally in the Torah, Sukkot is what Yaakov builds for his animals in a place named Sukkot (Gen. 33:17), which is the same place where later Bnei Yisrael stops first after the Exodus. (Ex. 12:37) And most significantly for our chag now, of course, it is how we lived in the wilderness: “I caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in Sukkot when I took them out of the land of Egypt / כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֨בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהֽוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם.” (Lev. 23:43) (Note this double meaning of the place and the structure!)
It makes some sense, therefore, that once Yehoshua finally leads us into the land of Israel as a people, there are no explicit references to Sukkot. After all, why would we still need them once we are already in the land? This logic, it seems, was strong enough to overcome the explicit mandate from the Torah that we observe Sukkot, without any reference to an Israel exemption. So then why today are we back to celebrating Sukkot everywhere?
The answer, it seems, is this: the experience of exile. In the early 6th century BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the first Beit Mikdash and sent us into exile. Seventy years later when Cyrus granted permission to return, an incredible scene is described: all the people assemble for the Torah to be read and explained, and they begin to weep. (Neh. 8:8-10) After Nehemiah and the Levi’im tell them they should instead be celebrating, “they found written in the Torah that the Lord had commanded by the hand of Moses that Bnei Yisrael dwell in booths on the festival in the seventh month / וַיִּמְצְא֖וּ כָּת֣וּב בַּתּוֹרָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֚ה יְהֹוָה֙ בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֲשֶׁר֩ יֵֽשְׁב֨וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֧ל בַּסֻּכּ֛וֹת בֶּחָ֖ג בַּחֹ֥דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִֽי.” (Neh. 8:14)
In other words, they are back home, back from exile, and what is the first thing they do? Build Sukkot to remember the times before they entered the land as a people in the first place! “All the congregation of the returnees from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths, for they had not done so from the days of Yehoshua the son of Nun until that day, and there was exceedingly great joy / וַיַּֽעֲשׂ֣וּ כָל־הַ֠קָּהָל הַשָּׁבִ֨ים מִן־הַשְּׁבִ֥י | סֻכּוֹת֘ וַיֵּֽשְׁב֣וּ בַסֻּכּוֹת֒ כִּ֣י לֹֽא־עָשׂ֡וּ מִימֵי֩ יֵשׁ֨וּעַ בִּן־נ֥וּן כֵּן֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל עַ֖ד הַיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַתְּהִ֛י שִׂמְחָ֖ה גְּדוֹלָ֥ה מְאֹֽד (Neh. 8:17) As Rabbi Chaim Marder explains, rather than emphasizing permanence and ownership, they instead immediately remind themselves of the need to take nothing for granted, of the potentially transitory and impermanent nature of life, that they are not owners but borrowers of God’s land. Humility and gratitude to God are to be their guiding values.
And what do they use to build their Sukkot? “Go out to the mountain and bring olive leaves and leaves of oil trees, myrtle leaves, date palm leaves, and leaves of plaited trees to make booths / צְא֣וּ הָהָ֗ר וְהָבִ֙יאוּ֙ עֲלֵי־זַ֙יִת֙ וַֽעֲלֵי־עֵ֣ץ שֶׁ֔מֶן וַֽעֲלֵ֚י הֲדָס֙ וַֽעֲלֵ֣י תְמָרִ֔ים וַֽעֲלֵ֖י עֵ֣ץ עָבֹ֑ת.” (Neh. 8:15) In other words: grab what you can, nothing fancy (including some of what today we call arba minim, the four species). The Talmud adds to this notion. When the Torah explains the holiday of Sukkot, it says we celebrate “when you gather from your threshing floor and your vat / בְּאָ֨סְפְּךָ֔ מִגָּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶֽךָ.” (Deut. 17:13) In the Talmud, Rabin offers this interpretation in Rabbi Yochanan’s name to explain what is used to build the Sukkah: “the verse speaks of the remnants from the threshing-floor and wine-press / בפסולת גורן ויקב הכתוב מדבר.” (Bavli Sukkot 12a)
The materials described in these passages thus reinforce the notion of humility; humility in how we view ourselves, humility in how we view our material existence. At the same time, the role of “remnants / פסולת,” or dregs, also conveys the message that we not view our own worth as diminished; to the contrary, teaches Rabbi Yossi Oratz: these remnants signify that even with our imperfections, when we might consider ourselves worth less, we are accepted by God; we have significance, just like those remnants. This is how we must view ourselves, and others as well. As the Beit Midrash of Birkat Shalom also offers, “all the remnants are a temporary shell whose function is to produce light, because the benefits of light are more evident from the darkness / וכל הפסולת היא קליפה זמנית, שתפקידה לייצר אור, כי יתרון האור ניכר מתוך החושך.”
May we continue to live according to the values of humility, reflection and forgiveness, in how we view ourselves and others as well.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head (Ivrit/Tanach/Tefillah)