#TieBlog #Vayishlah #JacobWrestles

27 Nov


Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being in Parashat Vayishlach and is renamed Yisrael.

Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being in Parashat Vayishlach and is renamed Yisrael.

Parashat Vayishlah presents the climax in Jacob’s journey from a trickster youth who gets his way through deception to a mature adult who faces life’s challenges with integrity. He is about to confront his estranged brother Esau for the first time in 20 years. He fears for his life as he believes Esau is still angry over being cheated out of his birthright. The night before meeting Esau, Jacob encounters a mysterious being on the banks of the Jabbok and they wrestle all night. Towards dawn, Jacob prevails but the sparring partner strikes him in his hip and causes permanent injury. Jacob emerges triumphant but wounded. He is renamed Yisrael- the one who wrestles with God and man and prevails. Later (33:18), Jacob is described as “Shalem,” whole or at peace. Even though Jacob is hurt in a wrestling bout, he is a much more whole person for finding within him the integrity to repair his relationship with his brother.

#TieBlog #Vayetze #Jacob’s Ladder

20 Nov
Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder

In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. They next morning, Jacob awakes and says, “God was in this place, and I did not even know it.” Herein lies a subtle but clear message that while other faith traditions view heavenly bliss as the ultimate religious achievement, for Judaism, the ultimate religious expression is bringing a bit of heaven onto earth.

Prayer As a Vehicle for Change

13 Nov


Year after year around Thanksgiving time, Hollywood turns up the heat.  As we enter the winter holiday season, our country is bombarded by movies that are meant to be blockbusters. I am always amazed at the extent to which these blockbuster movies are adventures or fantasies, movies that force us to take a leap of faith beyond reality. The most successful films become franchises that repeat over and over again.  Right now, pop culture is captivated by 007, the 24th film in the James Bond franchise.  Next month, after much hoopla, the seventh Star Wars film will hit the silver screen

Why do blockbuster fantasy movies always take the country by storm? Certainly the popularity of familiar storylines and identity with characters help. Special effects also go a long way towards making them entertaining spectacles. But the key reason people turn to film or any dramatic media, is the escape it offers from the harsh realities of our world. What could be more comforting than the opening lines of the signature song of Disney’s classic, Pinocchio: “When you wish upon a star/makes no difference who you are/anything your heart desires/will come to you.” If only the world were so simple.  Whether in print or on the screen, we turn to fantasy as an escape from the confusing world in which we live, a world fraught with evil and destruction.

Wouldn’t it be nice if somehow by magic we could bring back to life those who died in terrorist attacks in Israel in recent weeks? Imagine if we could use the Force to summon Israel’s enemies to a bargaining table to finalize peace in the region. Alas, we are not able to use the Force or summon any kind of magical powers to rid the world of its problems. Our world demands more of us.


At first glance, today’s Torah reading seems to confirm the “When you wish upon a star” thinking that we find in many films. The essential point of conflict in the story of Jacob and Esau is who will get their father’s blessing. When Jacob, disguised as Esau, stands before Isaac, he receives Isaac’s innermost blessing:

כח וְיִֽתֶּן־לְךָ הָֽאֱלֹהִים מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן וְתִירֽשׁ:

May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you; Be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, blessed be they who bless you.” (27:28-29) One might think that this blessing is a kind of hocus pocus incantation, like one would read in J.R.R. Tolkein or J.K. Rowling, two authors whose works also were adapted into blockbuster film serials. In fact, it is possible that Esau also believes that the blessing has a magical quality when he learns what happened and lets out a loud and bitter cry. Esau’s interest in the blessing was its material benefit. In the end, Esau receives from Isaac a very similar blessing of his own promising him the fat of  the earth and the dew of heaven above.

Blessings are not magic, however. Even in their most materialistic forms, the purpose of blessings is to acknowledge the ultimate power of God in the world. Elsewhere, the Torah explicitly prohibits practices of magic and divination that seek to undermine God’s authority over all creation. Isaac is more sophisticated than we often give him credit for in recognizing the distinction between a blessing and a magical incantation. This is most evident at the end of the parasha when Isaac blesses Jacob as he is about to flee from Esau’s wrath.

Isaac says: May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.” (28:3-4)


Nechama Leibowitz, one of the great Torah scholars of the 20th century, contrasts the blessing originally intended for Esau and the one Jacob received in his own right. On the one hand, Esau was promised abundance, fatness, power and dominion-material blessings. Jacob, however, is charged with the Abrahamic mission, which is essentially spiritual. It demands responsibility on the part of Jacob in addition to the promise it offers him.

In a twist on Shakespeare, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “To be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is: how to be or not to be.” Heschel further writes: “Man in prayer does not seek to impose his will upon God; he seeks to impose God’s will and mercy upon himself. Prayer is necessary to make us aware of our failures, backsliding, transgressions, sins.”


Jacob in his youth is far from perfect, and the Bible does not try to hide his faults. However, he has a greater sense of the ultimate purpose of prayer. By the end of Parashat Toledot, Isaac realizes that prayer is not merely a shopping list one sends to God, but a means to bring Godliness into the world and that the person to do that is Jacob. More than the other patriarchs, Jacob shows the greatest amount of growth. He makes mistakes and pays dearly for them. Ultimately, though, it is Jacob who recognizes the power of prayer to transform himself, as we shall see in the coming weeks.

In many fantasies, there are forces of good and forces of evil. The characters on either side of the divide lack the ability to change. The struggle between the two, therefore, is not a struggle over the hearts and minds of humanity. Rather, it is a pure power struggle devoid of moral implications. It is a struggle over the outside world and material objects. The victor is the one who comes up with the stronger magic tricks.


The Jewish understanding, on the other hand, is that we all have free will to choose between good and evil. Our world is not decided by the

wave of a magic wand but by how we treat one another. When we pray, we have the potential to find the strength within ourselves to make ourselves and the world better.

May the implicit lesson of Parashat Toledot and the readings of the coming weeks inspire us to approach prayer as a vehicle to improving ourselves and the world around us. Amen.



#TieBlog #Toledot

13 Nov

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. This year, they're a few weeks apart. Nevertheless, the turkeys on this week's tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.  Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. This year, they’re a few weeks apart. Nevertheless, the turkeys on this week’s tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.

Food and sustenance play a prominent role in Parashat Toledot. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. He later deceives his blind father by wearing hairy skins to appear like his brother as if he had just returned from a hunt. His mother Rebecca prepares the purported game for Jacob to present to Isaac and receive in return his innermost blessing intended for the first born. In between these two narratives centered around food, we learn that Isaac reclaims the wells that his father had dug in Canaan. The family legacy cannot continue without sustenance from water, nor can it continue without nourishment from food. Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving…

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#TieBlog #HayyeiSarah

6 Nov

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

Camels play a central role in Parashat Hayei Sarah. Camels play a central role in Parashat Hayei Sarah.

Parashat Hayyei Sarah begins with the death of Sarah and her burial. Abraham, confronting mortality, then sends his servant (known in the Midrash as Eliezer) to venture to Mesopotamia to find a suitable wife for Isaac. Eliezer’s caravan includes many camels. He knows he’s found “the one” for Isaac when Rebecca appears at the well and graciously draws water not just for the people in the caravan but for the camels as well. After Eliezer seals the deal with Rebecca’s family, she returns with Abraham’s servant to Canaan. She’s riding a camel when she first lays eyes on Isaac praying in the field. She’s so smitten she falls off the camel. #TieBlog pays homage to the camels who helped perpetuate the legacy of Abraham.

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Remembering Rabin 20 years later

30 Oct




On Yom Kippur, I reflected on my experience in Israel 20 years ago when the country went through the trauma of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. While Rabin’s yahrzeit already passed several days ago, this week marks the secular anniversary on November 4. Furthermore, President Bill Clinton in his eulogy of Rabin cited the very Torah portion that we read today, Parashat Vayera. President Clinton said:

This week, Jews all around the world are studying the Torah portion in which God tests the faith of Abraham, patriarch of the Jews and the Arabs. He commands Abraham to sacrifice Yitzhak. “Take your son, the one you love, Yitzhak.” As we all know, as Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak.

Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak. But Israel’s covenant with God for freedom, for tolerance, for security, for peace — that covenant must hold. That covenant was Prime Minister Rabin’s life’s work. Now we must make it his lasting legacy. His spirit must live on in us.

The Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning, never speaks of death, but often speaks of peace. In its closing words, may our hearts find a measure of comfort and our souls, the eternal touch of hope.

“Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleinu, ve-al kol Israel, ve-imru, amen.”

Shalom, haver.

On this twentieth anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, official memorials are taking place, including one tomorrow in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv at which Bill Clinton will be present. Yet, it seems that reflections on the Rabin assassination is rather subdued in the Jewish public square. Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute  suggests in an op-ed three reasons for the muted commemorations:

  1. If Rabin’s assassination was a cautionary tale on the dangers of Jewish fundamentalism, its message has not been sufficiently heeded, particularly in the last year in which Jews have carried out horrific acts of violence.
  2. Rabin’s political legacy is complex. We will never know what would have happened if he had lived. Given where we are now, it seems Pollyannaish that he would have completed a peace deal and brought about the elusive two-state solution.
  3. The biggest obstacle to Rabin’s memory is that many Jews very reasonably have little appetite right now for the self-flagellation involved with a commemoration of Rabin. As Israel’s citizens are under attack, many of the country’s supporters feel that Israel’s primary enemies are from without and not from within. They argue that empathy with a society under attack dictates solidarity with the people rather than the bitter surfacing of a memory that signaled that society’s failure. If remembering Rabin is about signaling that we can be our own worst enemies, that message is hard for us to hear today. Rabin’s legacy, in other words, is hijacked both by the complicated political reality he left behind, and by the dominant lesson of his death as a warning about Jew-on-Jew violence. Rabin’s memory may be lost because it arises at an inconvenient time, or because it is thought to be a failure.


Just as Bill Clinton framed Rabin’s legacy 20 years ago through the lenses of  Parashat Vayera, we can do the same. The portion continues the story of Abraham and the dramatic accounts of how the father of our nation welcomed angels into his tent, argued with God over the justice of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, the birth of Isaac in his and Sarah’s old age, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the binding of Isaac. We see Abraham as a great hero, yet one with human flaws. He and the other patriarchs and matriarchs are at once larger than life and very approachable. For centuries, people have attempted to get inside the minds of our ancestors and speculate on the details of their experiences and what they must have thought at the time. The art of Midrash is the attempt to have a conversation with the Biblical narrative and to imagine ourselves in the situations described.

Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet who died in 2000, completed his last collection of poetry shortly before he died in a book titled “Open Closed Open.” Though he identified as a secular Israeli, much of his poetry, particularly in this volume, discusses Biblical figures and religious issues. Abraham and the story of the Binding of Isaac appear multiple times. The following poem is an example of the poet’s attempt to enter the minds of our ancestors and imagine them reflecting with nostalgia on the traumatic events of the Akeidah.

Taken from “Open Closed Open” by Yehuda Amichai

Page 119

Every year our father Abraham takes his sons to Mount Moriah, the same way that I take my children to the Negev hills where my war took place.

Abraham walks with his sons: this is where I left the servants, that’s where I tied the ass to the tree at the foot of the hill, and here, right at this spot, you asked me, Isaac my son: Here is the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the sacrifice? A little further up you asked me again.

When they reached the top of the mountain they rested awhile and ate

And drank, and he showed them the thicket where the ram was caught by its horns.

And when Abraham died, Isaac took his sons to the same spot.

“Here I lifted up the wood and that’s where I stopped for breath, this is where I asked my father and he replied, God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, and that’s where I knew that it was me.”

And when Isaac became blind his sons brought him to that same Mount Moriah and described to him in words

All those things that he may already have forgotten.


In this poem, Abraham behaves like we might behave visiting a historic site while on vacation, particularly while visiting places of battle. The poet likens Abraham to generations of Israelis who would often visit battle sites with a sense of nostalgia. We also see the contrast between generations. Abraham has his set of memories when he revisits the site with Isaac. But when Isaac takes his sons there, he remembers things differently. He acknowledges that while Abraham did not fully answer his question about where was the sacrifice, he understood that he was the intended sacrifice. Then, Isaac revisits the site years later when he is blind, perhaps a symbol of blocking out a memory that was too painful for him.

Amichai’s interpretation of the Akeidah is told from different perspectives. Similarly, this week we approach the memory of Yitzhak Rabin from different perspectives: what was, what is and what might have been. I believe many of us hold all three of these thoughts and memories of Rabin simultaneously. Abraham and Isaac were not perfect, and neither was Rabin.

On this 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, I yearn for religious and political leaders who, like Rabin, are willing to take risks for positive change and who continue to envision a better future with both sincerity and pragmatism. This is how I choose to remember Rabin twenty years later.

To conclude, the Psalmist says (122:6):


ו   שַׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹהֲבָיִךְ: ז   … ח   לְמַעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּךְ: ט   לְמַעַן בֵּית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָךְ:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they who love the Lord shall prosper…For the sake of my brothers and sisters, I will now say Peace be within you. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your goodness.



#TieBlog #Vayera #TheScream

29 Oct
Edvard Munch's "The Scream" has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

When I found a tie with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” it was clear to me that it would be perfect for Parashat Vayera. The question is what specific connection or “tie-in” it has. The next question is what kind of a scream is represented? Is it a scream of terror or a scream of joy? If the latter, perhaps it’s the aged Sarah expressing her shock that she is going to give birth to a son. On the terror side there are multiple options. It could be Abraham hearing about God’s planned destruction of Sodom and Amorah and his righteous indignation that the just might perish with the wicked. It could be the wife of Lot gazing upon Sodom and Amorah as they burn from fire and brimstone. She turns into a pillar of salt from the shock. Or perhaps it’s Sarah upon learning of the near sacrifice of her son Isaac (Sarah dies at the beginning of the next portion). It could be all of these things, making this one loud, action-packed Torah portion.


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