Vayetze 5754


This weeks Parasha tells the story of the flight of Jacob and the experience that he had on the way: "He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place--and I did not know it!" And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." This last verse reads,in the Hebrew, "ma nora hamakom haze, eyn ze ki im beyt elohim, veze sha'ar hashama'yim." [Gen. 28:11:18 ]

Now, it is easy enough to think that Jacob was impressed, but here we have more than just that. We may ask, precisely where was this awesome place which Jacob, upon awakening, would call "the abode of God" and "the gateway to heaven"? We ask, but the Torah is consistently indifferent -- it won't answer. Rashi tries to help. He notes that grammatically the noun is accompanied by a definite article: Ha-makom, literally "he came upon the place," and goes on to suggest that it must be a place already mentioned by the Torah. Accordingly, Rashi identifies "the palce" with the mountain upon which Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac, since the word 'hamakom' appears in both verses (Gen. 22:4). Reflecting rabbinic tradition throughout, Rashi then concludes (in Gen. 28:17) that indeed this spot was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem which truly linked heaven and earth. In short, long after the destruction of the second Temple, the rabbis deepened the sanctity of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount by making them the locus of the two narratives in Genesis." Khesed Avraham -- the "righteous act of Abraham" becomes also khalom ya'akov -- "the dream of Jacob."
However, they may have wronged the spirit of both stories, which is cast in the most general terms. In the case of Jacob, about to go into exile, the force of the unspecified place is to assure Jacob that God’s presence is not restricted to a single holy site or even the entire promised land. God would accompany and protect him beyond the borders back in Haran. The impulse to create a sacred piece of real estate ran counter to the message that God is universally accessible. Closer to the spirit of Genesis is the lesson taught by Rabban Gamliel not long after the Roman victory in 70 C.E.: "Why did God choose to reveal Himself to Moses in a lowly burning bush? To make the point that there is no place on earth which is devoid of God’s presence."
The Scriptures contain some 70different names for God, many of which we do not know and do not pronounce; rabbinic literature adds another 90 or more and no one as yet has bothered to tally the number added by Jewish mystics. Yet, maybe the most profound is the name that we can pronounce and write, and the most pious announce to one and all -- it is 'hamakom' -- you guessed it, 'the place!'
God is here perceived as the space in which the universe exists. God is neither outside the world nor a resident within it; the world constitutes a part of God. Transcending both gender and image, the conception expresses the grandeur and austerity of Jewish monotheism. It has the capacity to do justice to a universe more than 15 billion years old and still expanding.
We extend our sympathy to mourners in their moment of intense grief during the funeral and the period of 'shiv'a.' The words we use to console the mourners are, "May the All-encompassing One comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem -- hamakom yenakhem etkhem betokh she'ar veley tzi'yon vyrushala'yim." The divine name that we employ in this consolation is 'Hamakom.' The words stress that whatever the loss, the bereaved are not alone. Others in Israel have also been afflicted. And God shares their pain. No house of mourning, no place of suffering is without God’s presence. God softens the anguish of a community joined by fate and faith.
The challenge of viewing God as 'Hamakom' is to recognize God in the ordinary and every day. Our inclination to be awed only by the extraordinary dulls our senses to the miracles that surround us. Let us look around us and recognize that this is the place, even as father Jacob did. And may blessings and love flow from Hamakom, and fill all of us and all of our important places.

Amen


5755



This week we read in the Torah the story of the flight of Jacob from his parent's home. Ostensibly he goes to find a wife in Aram, but in fact, he must escape the danger of the wrath of his brother Esau -- who feels that he had been cheated by Jacob twice. We don't really know very much about Jacob -- or do we? The Torah tells us that he was "a quiet man, living in tents." We know that he used to cook -- as we read that he "cooked pottage; and Esau came from the field, and he was famished." We also know that he wanted to be the "first son" -- so that he made a bargain with his brother, who "sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils." We know that he listened to his mother and "pulled a trick" on his father to receive the blessing Yitzkhak wanted to give to Esau. We know that he left home with blessings -- and little else. The scion of a rich father and grandfather was allowed to leave home and travle as a penniless fugitive. Does this picture engender great pride in us for our third (and last) patriarch? We need to learn more about him!
The text of the Torah tells us that he came to a point in his flight when he was totally exhausted. He took "of the stones of that place," and put them under his head for his pillows, as he lay down in that place to sleep. He had to be very tired to fall asleep on a pile of rocks -- and should have had nothing but discomfort and nightmares, too. Instead, though, he had a dream -- nay, a vision: he saw "a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you." [Gen 28:12-16]
Would you not think that this experience, based on what we already know of Jacob, should have made him feel very fortunate, and possibly even a little superior to those around him? Yet, here we begin to see and understand what manner of man Jacob really is. The text tells us, "then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, 'Surely the Lord is in this place--and I did not know it!' And he was afraid, and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'" [Gen 28:16,17] Certainly Jacob is properly impressed by his vision. His reaction, though, is a total surprise to us.
Jacob could have gone on his way with a self satisfaction that borders on arrogance, "God is with me and I cannot fail." Yet, instead we read his words, "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and garment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God..." [Gen 28:20,21] What kind of a reaction is this? God has promised him possession of the entire land, and a large family, and fame and fortune that will make him "a blessing" -- and all he asks is for is " bread to eat, and garment to put on?"
The sages explain this by saying that the bread is Torah, God's teaching, as we read in Proverbs (9:5), "Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mixed. Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding." As for the garment, the sages tell us that it is the Talit, the prayershawl, which is the mantle of Mitzvot, the deeds that follow from the study of Torah. Thus we understand that Jacob realizes that the promise of God is meaningless if his seed will not follow in the path of his father Yitzkhak and his grandfather Abraham. Just as Solomon was to plead with God, (Kings I 3:9) "Give therefore your servant an understanding heart to judge your people, that I may discern between good and bad," so, also, Jacob is asking God to keep him faithful and true to his roots in the midst of the people that he will come across in his travels. He knows that none of them will share his faith, and he knows that the temptation to conform will be great. With the "bread" of Torah and the "garment" of mitzvot he is guaranteed to retain his identity -- and maybe he knows intuitively God's reply to Solomon: "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind... I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life..." [I Kings 3:11-13]
So Jacob, the third patriarch, progenitor of Solomon and of his father David, shall prosper in all he does.
Amen




5756


This week we read in the Torah about the "coming of age" of the third, and in some ways the most important patriarch of the Children of Israel. The reading begins in chapter 28, verse ten: "And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and remained there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you. And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How awesome is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." [Gen 28:10-17]
Jacob was well aware of his heritage. Later in the portion we read this week, when he leaves his father in law’s household in haste and is confronted by Laban in a possible hostile manner, Jacob says to him, "Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely you would have sent me away now empty. God has seen my affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked you last night." [Gen 31:42] This name, "the fear of Isaac," is obviously a reference to the Akeda, the binding of his father by his grandfather upon the altar on Mount Moriah. If Jacob was aware of this, he must have also known with a certainty that "grandpa" pronounced the mountain a holy sight, "And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-Yireh; as it is said to this day, In the Mount of the Lord it shall be seen." [Gen 22:14] However, the place where Yaakov goes to sleep for the night is not at Mount Moriah – but rather a place called "Luz," which Jacob renames "Beit El" after his night's experience We are left with two questions: Why didn’t Jacob stop in the place where his grandfather offered his father to God – and why was he so afraid of the place and found it to be so awesome.
The sages of Judaism explained that Jacob was escaping from his enemy, Esau, and did not have time to make a ‘detour’ to visit a shrine set up by Abraham. None the less, he was beset by great sorrow because he missed visiting that place – in the same way that generation upon generation of faithful Jews lived in constant sorrow because they could not go and visit the temple (which was built on Mount Moriah) and offer a sacrifice to God. The sages told the Jews that Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zaka’i had ruled that "Gmilut Khassadim," the doing of acts of loving kindness, was the equivalent of offering sacrifices in the temple – thus making possible Judaism's continuity after the temple was destroyed. Jacob’s flight from his brother and his night at Luz gave the sages another lesson to teach: Mount Moriah, and the Temple that stood upon it, can "move" from place to place.
Abraham fixed "the place where God is seen" to be Mount Moriah. Jacob knows this. Jacob misses Moriah and travels’ on to Luz. He goes to sleep at night, and lo and behold, the place where he lays his head becomes "the place where God is seen." Does this negate Abraham’s shrine? Not at all! The sages declare that God moved the mountain to accomodate Jacob. Yes, this is precisely and exactly the fulfillment of the saying, "If Mohammed can’t come to the mountain – the mountain will come to Mohammed." Only it is not Mohammed – it is Jacob for whom the mountain moves! The sages teach many a lesson based upon this interpretation of the reaction of Jacob to what he has seen. For one thing, there is a lesson about saving one’s life.
Jacob is the first "Jew" who lived after the events of the Akeda – and upon whom it wouldhave been incumbent to visit that place and worship there. Yet he does not, because his life is in danger. The lesson we learn is that "fulfilling one’s religious duty" is delayed when life is in danger. The second lesson is that when we have "kavanah" – which is purpose and devotion – we can "move mountains," which is to say that we can do almost everything.
Now, once asleep, Jacob had a dream, which is described in the words, "And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it." [Gen 28:12] The sages ask, "how was the ladder set up – straight up, or on a slant?" They have an answer , to be sure -- and that is the reason they ask. They say, if the ladder was straight, you would not be able to see "angels" -- but only one angel, as the one on the bottom would hide all the others. Therefore we must assume that the ladder was on a slant. The sages view the ladder as a way for all mankind of ascending from the "physical" to the spiritual life. What is this kind of a tool of ascent called? I hope you guessed it! It is called "Torah!" Each rung on the ladder is a higher level in Torah erudition and spiritual development. If the ladder is straight, each rung directly above its predecessor, it reflects merely a higher level, not a distinct one. Since they are all in the same line, on the same plane, they are not different from one another—only higher, loftier. However, if the ladder is on a slant, each rung is in its own plane. Each is distinct from the preceding rung, not only in height, but also in position. It is as if each rung has its own very special and unique position in space and time, and consequently its own character. Likewise, as each one of us grows in knowledge and fulfillment of Torah, we are spirituality elevated, and we become totally new individuals.
Our sages tell us that if the previous generation can be likened to angels, then we are like humans. If we view them as humans, then we are no more than donkeys. As one grows spiritually, one becomes a new being. As one grows above his peers, he becomes a new personality, one totally distinct from his previous self. Nor is it simply a matter of quantity—the Torah scholar does not just happens to know more, he has acquired a greater and more profound knowledge of Torah, which has changed him and his total life experience. Therefore, he is on a totally different plane than his counterpart, a position that the unlearned person just does not comprehend.
Furthermore, when a ladder is standing straight, each rung "sees" only the one rung just above it. It will therefore perceive a distinction between two—one is on a higher level than the other. That may make a person complacent, thinking that there is one challenge left to ‘learn," and why should one bother. When a ladder is on a slant, however, the lower rung can see a whole "staircase" of possibilities for reaching higher and higher -- and with the road thus "mapped out" for him, he will begin an ascent of discovery and growth. The Jew is challenged to study and appreciate the beauty and profundity of Torah, to join all those who have mastered and excelled in Torah throughout the ages. As one ascends the ladder of Torah and mitzvot, one undergoes a transformation with each step. The very process is uplifting and ennobling. Ashrey mi she’amal baTorah, happy are those who labor in Torah, vyhi hashem menat khelkam – for the Lord shall be his portion. We are blessed with patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – but their nobility is only maintained by those who labor, even as they did, to do God’s will and serve His purposes. Amen



5757

This week we read in the Torah about the "coming of age" of the third, and in some ways the most important patriarch of the Children of Israel. The reading begins in chapter 28, verse ten: "And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and remained there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you. And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How awesome is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." [Gen 28:10-17]
Jacob was well aware of his heritage. Later in the portion we read this week, when he leaves his father in law's household in haste and is confronted by Laban in a possible hostile manner, Jacob says to him, "Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely you would have sent me away now empty. God has seen my affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked you last night." [Gen 31:42] This name, "the fear of Isaac," is obviously a reference to the Akeda, the binding of his father by his grandfather upon the altar on Mount Moriah. If Jacob was aware of this, he must have also known with a certainty that "grandpa" pronounced the mountain a holy sight, "And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-Yireh; as it is said to this day, In the Mount of the Lord it shall be seen." [Gen 22:14] However, the place where Yaakov goes to sleep for the night is not at Mount Moriah – but rather a place called "Luz," which Jacob renames "Beit El" after his night's experience We are left with two questions: Why didn't Jacob stop in the place where his grandfather offered his father to God – and why was he so afraid of the place and found it to be so awesome.
The sages of Judaism explained that Jacob was escaping from his enemy, Esau, and did not have time to make a ‘detour' to visit a shrine set up by Abraham. None the less, he was beset by great sorrow because he missed visiting that place – in the same way that generation upon generation of faithful Jews lived in constant sorrow because they could not go and visit the temple (which was built on Mount Moriah) and offer a sacrifice to God. The sages told the Jews that Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zaka'i had ruled that "Gmilut Khassadim," the doing of acts of loving kindness, was the equivalent of offering sacrifices in the temple – thus making possible Judaism's continuity after the temple was destroyed. Jacob's flight from his brother and his night at Luz gave the sages another lesson to teach: Mount Moriah, and the Temple that stood upon it, can "move" from place to place.
Abraham fixed "the place where God is seen" to be Mount Moriah. Jacob knows this. Jacob misses Moriah and travels' on to Luz. He goes to sleep at night, and lo and behold, the place where he lays his head becomes "the place where God is seen." Does this negate Abraham's shrine? Not at all! The sages declare that God moved the mountain to accomodate Jacob. Yes, this is precisely and exactly the fulfillment of the saying, "If Mohammed can't come to the mountain – the mountain will come to Mohammed." Only it is not Mohammed – it is Jacob for whom the mountain moves! The sages teach many a lesson based upon this interpretation of the reaction of Jacob to what he has seen. For one thing, there is a lesson about saving one's life.
Jacob is the first "Jew" who lived after the events of the Akeda – and upon whom it wouldhave been incumbent to visit that place and worship there. Yet he does not, because his life is in danger. The lesson we learn is that "fulfilling one's religious duty" is delayed when life is in danger. The second lesson is that when we have "kavanah" – which is purpose and devotion – we can "move mountains," which is to say that we can do almost everything.
Now, once asleep, Jacob had a dream, which is described in the words, "And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it." [Gen 28:12] The sages ask, "how was the ladder set up – straight up, or on a slant?" They have an answer , to be sure -- and that is the reason they ask. They say, if the ladder was straight, you would not be able to see "angels" -- but only one angel, as the one on the bottom would hide all the others. Therefore we must assume that the ladder was on a slant. The sages view the ladder as a way for all mankind of ascending from the "physical" to the spiritual life. What is this kind of a tool of ascent called? I hope you guessed it! It is called "Torah!" Each rung on the ladder is a higher level in Torah erudition and spiritual development. If the ladder is straight, each rung directly above its predecessor, it reflects merely a higher level, not a distinct one. Since they are all in the same line, on the same plane, they are not different from one another—only higher, loftier. However, if the ladder is on a slant, each rung is in its own plane. Each is distinct from the preceding rung, not only in height, but also in position. It is as if each rung has its own very special and unique position in space and time, and consequently its own character. Likewise, as each one of us grows in knowledge and fulfillment of Torah, we are spirituality elevated, and we become totally new individuals.
Our sages tell us that if the previous generation can be likened to angels, then we are like humans. If we view them as humans, then we are no more than donkeys. As one grows spiritually, one becomes a new being. As one grows above his peers, he becomes a new personality, one totally distinct from his previous self. Nor is it simply a matter of quantity—the Torah scholar does not just happens to know more, he has acquired a greater and more profound knowledge of Torah, which has changed him and his total life experience. Therefore, he is on a totally different plane than his counterpart, a position that the unlearned person just does not comprehend.
Furthermore, when a ladder is standing straight, each rung "sees" only the one rung just above it. It will therefore perceive a distinction between two—one is on a higher level than the other. That may make a person complacent, thinking that there is one challenge left to ‘learn," and why should one bother. When a ladder is on a slant, however, the lower rung can see a whole "staircase" of possibilities for reaching higher and higher -- and with the road thus "mapped out" for him, he will begin an ascent of discovery and growth. The Jew is challenged to study and appreciate the beauty and profundity of Torah, to join all those who have mastered and excelled in Torah throughout the ages. As one ascends the ladder of Torah and mitzvot, one undergoes a transformation with each step. The very process is uplifting and ennobling. Ashrey mi she'amal baTorah, happy are those who labor in Torah, vyhi hashem menat khelkam – for the Lord shall be his portion. We are blessed with patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – but their nobility is only maintained by those who labor, even as they did, to do God's will and serve His purposes.

Amen


  

5761 


This week we read in the Torah about the “coming of age” of the third, and in some ways the most important patriarch of the Children of Israel. The reading is the portion of Va’yetze, which begins in chapter 28, verse ten: “And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.” It is interesting to note that we say we start the “story of Jacob” with this portion, when much of what was essential to Jacob happened in last week’s portion - Toldot - the portion of our patriarch Yitzkhak.
And why not? After all, are we not all the product of our home and our family? Are we not fashioned by the experience we gain in the time that we spend under the roof of our progenitors? When then do we become “our own person?” The Torah tell us in the very name of this week’s portion: “Va’yetze” – when we go out, when we strike out on our own.
Again I leave the torah to speak of a contemporary issue. We are celebrating the second Shabbat in December, in the shadow of our neighbors’ decorated homes for the season of their holiday, the birthday of their savior. The story of the followers of the man Jesus of Nazareth is, like this week’s reading about father Jacob, a story of departure from the ‘house of the father’ to a different life style and a different set of beliefs. Jacob escaped the wrath of his brother. Jesus did not. It was his followers, in tragic circumstances, with the seeming end of the time of faith at hand, and they had to leave – not their home, not their father’s roof. They had to leave the envelope. They had to find an alternative to the faith of Abraham that would not only survive the Roman experience, but overcome it and conquer it. It is interesting to look at the Jews who followed Jesus as rebels against Rome who, in the final count, won the day and vanquished the enemy.
Jacob left his father’s house and moved in with Laban. Laban was an enemy of everything Abraham and Yitzkhak held dear. He lived with Laban and married his daughters, he worked for him and helped him to prosper. Yet all along he knew and prepared for the day when he would have to separate himself from him. The followers of Jesus were Jews in the beginning, and they were taken into exile with the Jews to Rome. It was in Rome that they “left their father’s home.” They began to change themselves to accommodate the Roman experience, to streamline and make their ways more accepted by the masses. The primary articles of faith of Judaism were given up: The unity of God was replaced by a trinity; the invisibility of God was superceded by the teaching that Jesus was “God in the flesh;” and the recognition of God’s sovereignty by accepting the day He hallowed (Shabbat) as a universal day of rest was eventually changed to celebrating “the Lord’s Day” on Sunday, the day of the resurrection. That made Christianity different from Judaism, and unacceptable to Jews as a continuing of the teachings of Jewish tradition. It also made it possible for Rome to accept this “new” religion as the state religion. The holidays of the Jews were jettisoned, and new holidays, actually tested and loved holidays of the Roman empire, were fashioned as part of the new religion. Customs, such as trees and beloved gift-giving saints were added to concepts that could never be a part of the faith of Abraham. The “birthday” of God... Boggles the mind! A true and complete departure. Let our neighbors enjoy their feasts, and let us remember and never forget that ours is the teaching of Abraham, Yitzkhak and Ya’akov, Moshe and David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. And so many, many more. Prophets and Rabbis, sages and martyrs. All of them consecrated the One God, Creator of the world and its Master. They lived and died within the same departure, a departure that implied a return home, a return to the fold, and a never ending faith in God’s ability to keep us under his ‘roof,’ his ever protecting canopy. It is this lesson that we must hold before our eyes as we see our neighbors’ decorations. Not all that shines is the sun, and not all that gives warmth is as bright as the sun. Let us rejoice in our heritage and give thanks for God’s great love of His people Israel.

Amen

5762

This Shabbat we are celebrating the most American of holidays - which, of course, originated in our Torah. The early American settlers were quite often influenced by our Torah. In fact, they often thought of themselves as "the new Israel"- if not politically and physically, at least spiritually. The early American universities did not graduate students who failed a course in basic Hebrew, and Ben Franklin suggested that the "great seal" of the Republic should depict the children of Israel coming across the Red Sea in the dry and the hosts of Pharaoh and his horses drowning in the returning waters.
The people who came to settle in North America were all refugees, all came to escape some form of persecution or another - political, pecuniary, or personal. Soon after arriving at the blessed shores of this great and abundant land they all learned first hand just how very fortunate they were. The land was good and yielded its produce with great generosity. The land was new and society was unencumbered by old traditions, old social orders, and old rivalries. The currency of the new land was hard work, and opportunity beckoned equally to all who were willing to heed its call and harness themselves to the task of succeeding in their endeavors.
This week we read in the Torah the story of the "first immigrant" who left his home to seek fame and fortune in a land of opportunity. "Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east. And he looked, and saw a well in the field, and, lo, there were three flocks of sheep lying by it; for from that well they watered the flocks; and a great stone was upon the well's mouth." [Gen. 29:1,2] Ya'akov, our third patriarch, arrived in this foreign place, unlike Abraham's servant who came to find a wife for Yitzkhak, without his father riches. He had to rely on his wit, and he had to make good. The text tells us that when he saw Rakhel he recognized her at once as his ‘intended,' and he went into action, rolling the big stone that covered the well, and giving water to his uncle Laban's sheep.
Acting in this manner he achieved a number of results. He showed initiative and good will to Rakhel, finding favor with her. He also makes an impression on his uncle, Laban, who is not a kind man or a generous man - but definitely a practical man - who see the value of hosting a young man who is willing to do hard labor to pay his way and earn his keep. Laban does not know at this point that beside Jacob's good will, he is also blessed by God, and his every step is blessed with success and an overabundance of results.
Likewise our land, the United States of America, and our people - a mixture of people from the four corners of the world, all come together to work and build a better life for all who care to join the great adventure of building and supporting a land and creating a new and different kind of a nation, founded on the principles enunciated in Torah: that all men are created equal, that we have all one Father, as we see stated on one currency, "in God we Trust," and that consequently we are all brothers.
We find ourselves, after two hundred and twenty five years of national existence, at war for our very survival - with an enemy whose ideals contradict our own, whose faith demands total blind obedience and complete surrender of personal identity. We have been attacked, and the enemy has declared his desire to see us defeated and devastated and driven to conversion to his blind faith. The enemy shall not succeed. We shall endure, we shall persevere, and we shall overcome. We shall not be put down, and we shall not be defeated.
For we are the seed of Jacob, the man who came to a new land with nothing but a strong back and a stronger ambition to make good. We are the decedents of the pioneers who came to
America to find a haven from the folly of extreme religious fanatics who impose their will and enslave the multitudes in the name of one god or another. We are the people who have endured rough seas in steerage to arrive at the golden shores and pick up and begin the struggle to create a life free of fear, free of strife, free of bondage to any tyrant, local or foreign. Our banner, the Stars and Stripes, is a symbol of the land of the free and the home of the brave - and it shall fly over our land long after the last despot and the last holy warrior is relegated to history books and fairy tales. This has been promised to us by God Almighty Himself, in his revelation to Ya'akov at Beth El, "I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you." [Gen 28:15]

Amen

Va'yetze 5763

This week's portion of the Torah actually continues the story of father Jacob, to whom we were introduced last week. This week's portion begins with the patriarch's flight of from his parent's home. Ostensibly he goes to find a wife in Aram. In fact, he must depart hastily, without entourage and without property of any kind – to escape the danger of the wrath of his brother Esau – who feels that he had been cheated by Jacob twice. We don't really know very much about Jacob -- or do we? The Torah tells us that he was "a quiet man, living in tents." We know that he used to cook -- as we read that he "cooked pottage; and Esau came from the field, and he was famished." We also know that he wanted to be the "first son" -- maybe prompted by his mother, Rivkah, who told him that she had had a prophecy that he would be the one to inherit his father. That is why he made a bargain with his brother, who "sold his birthright to Jacob." Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils – a thick lentils soup. We have also read in last week's portion Jacob listened to his mother and "pulled a trick" on his old blind father to receive the blessing Yitzkhak wanted to bestow upon his favorite son, Esau. We know that he left home with blessings -- and little else. The scion of a rich father and grandfather was allowed to leave home and travel as a penniless fugitive. Does this picture engender great pride in us for our third patriarch? We need to learn more about him!
So, this week's Torah reading tells us the story of the flight of Jacob and the experience that he had on the way: "He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place--and I did not know it!" And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." This last verse reads, in the Hebrew, "ma nora hamakom haze, eyn ze ki im beyt elohim, veze sha'ar hashama'yim." [Gen. 28:11:18]
There are a number of important messages to the Jewish people in this very first segment of the Torah reading. First, we are told that Jacob was a worth while person – for if he was not, he would not have had angels about him, protecting him from harm and leading him on the right path. Secondly, we learn about the depth of Jacob's religious sensitivity. He knew and understood that what he experienced was not merely a spooky dream about "scary spirits" without a source, without a message for him. Immediately upon awaking he proclaimed "Surely the Lord is in this place--and I did not know it! " - and went about making amends, proclaiming, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
Jacob recognized the holiness of the place – how much more so he must have recognized and adored the holiness of Him whose presence made the place holy. He understood at once that the ascending angels were his Canaan companions, and the descending angels will travel on with him. Jacob had the maturity and the presence of mind to create a covenant of his own with the God of his father and his grandfather: "And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and garment to put on, So that I come back to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God; And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that you shall give me I will surely give the tenth to you." [ibid. 28:20-22]
Jacob then proceeds to Aram of the Two Rivers, where he meets and falls in love with Rachel, accepts Laban's offer to work seven years to marry her, and is then cheated on his wedding day, his beloved being replaced by her older and less liked sister Leah. Jacob complains about his betrayal and is offered the "perfect solution" – marry both sisters. Of course, there is a price to pay! More years of servitude must be endured – years that seem without end. Finally Jacob resolves that he must strike out on his own. The portion ends as it began: Jacob in flight. There are a number of differences, though - he is not traveling alone, he is not as young as he was when first he left his father's camp, and above all, he is not unknown to us. He is the father of eleven sons, master of a large retinue of women - wives and concubines, servants and much livestock. Much of his life is still before him. He is yet to resolve his differences with his brother Esau; he is still to return to his father's grace and mother's love - but he is well on his way.

Amen

Vayetze 5764

This week we read in the Torah about the "coming of age" of the third, and in some ways the most important patriarch of the Children of Israel. The text begins, "And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and remained there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you. And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How awesome is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." [Gen 28:10-17]
Our sages asked a seemingly silly question: "The text says, ‘a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven.' Was the ladder standing straight, or was it at a slant?" You may think that this is a strange question - but you know what I always teach: If they ask, its because they already have a great answer to give us. Well, this is very true.
Our sages taught that the ladder was standing on a slant, the bottom resting in Be'er Sheva with the top to Beyt El. Thus, the middle of the ladder coincided with the future site of Bait Hamikdash, the holy Temple on mount Moriah. In this manner one can see that God's protection stretches over the entire land, from way down in the south to the area north of the place of where God appeared to Abraham, which he called "behar adona'y yera'eh – the mountain where God shall be seen."
Another sage asked, "why was the ladder slanted?" The message of the angels ascending and descending would have been equally effective, he reasoned, if the ladder had stood straight. While various reasons are suggested for the ladder's specific position, this sage made a compelling observation which presents a great lesson. We may think of Torah as a ladder, and view each rung on this ladder as a "higher level" in Torah understanding – which leads to a more profound spiritual development. When the rungs are straight, each one directly above its predecessor, it reflects a higher level. It is like grading: you begin on the first rung and rise rung by rung as you master verse after verse, chapter after chapter. Since they are all in the same line, on the same plane, they are not different from one another – only higher, loftier.
When a ladder is on a slant, however, each rung is in its own plane. Each is distinct from the preceding rung, not only in height, but also in position. It is as if each rung has its own unique position and character. Likewise, as one masters the Torah and grows in spirituality, one becomes a totally new individual. One is not the same person as he was previously. He distinguishes himself from others who are not on his level. He cannot be compared to any individual who is not on his level of Torah and mitzvot.
Still another argument suggests that when a ladder is standing straight, each rung "sees" two rungs – the rung below and the one above it (except, of course, for the first rung that only sees a rung above). It will therefore perceive a distinction between the two – one is on a "higher" or a "lower"level than the other. When a ladder is on a slant, however, each rung cannot see anything either above or below it. One can see different plains, some above, some below, all distinct. One can therefore appreciate the beauty and profundity of Torah which is multi-faceted – and realize that as one ascends the ladder of Torah he, too, shall undergo a transformation with each step.
Jacob's ladder is a symbol of God's protection of His people, those who live by His teaching, even as it is a symbol of His teaching, the Torah. Each word that was transmitted by Him to our Fathers and to us, each mitzvah that we received, is like an angel ascending and descending – keeping the dialogue between us and our creator flowing, bringing us His blessing and the eternal message of His love and grace.

 

Va’yetze 5765

The reading in the Torah this week is the seventh portion of Beresheet, from 28:10 to 32:3. The text continues the story of the patriarchs, telling us the events of the life of Ya’akov after he leaves the compound of Yitzkhak and Rivkah.
Indeed, we can look at the life of Ya’akov as spanning four seasons: last week we read of his childhood and youth in the tents of his father and in the company of his mother. That life had its highs and lows. He had to compete with his brother Esav, bargaining a birthright for a meal of red lentils, following his mother’s direction to deceive and receive his father’s “blessing of the first born.” Ya’akov did not have a chance to test his father’s blessing as he was dispatched by his parents to find a wife in Aram of the Two Rivers – and coincidentally escape his brother’s plans to kill him as soon as Yitzkhak’s life comes to an end.
This week we read of the second season: coming of age in Laban’s home. Before we arrive in Aram, however, we read of Ya’akov’s vision of the ladder with the angels ascending and descending. God Almighty speaks to Ya’akov and promises to shield and protect him on his travels. Ya’akov awakes to realize that he has spent the night at “the gate of heaven” [Genesis 28:17] – and he called the place Beyt El, the House of God.
Next we read of the first encounter between father Ya’askov and the beautiful, outgoing Rakhel. The text tells us, “And Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel,” [Ibid. 29:16] and the text describes the two, “Leah had weak eyes; but Rachel was beautiful and well favored.” [Ibid. 29:17] The text continues and tells us, “And Jacob loved Rachel” [Ibid. 29:18]
There is an old folk-tale that suggests that Rakhel and Leah were twins, just like Ya’akov and Esav. It is also told that there was an agreement between Rivkah and Lavan that their children will marry. Thus Esav, the first born, was promised to Leah - and Ya’akov was to wed Rakhel, and indeed he fell in love with her. It is also said that Leah’s ‘weak eyes’ were the result of years of crying about her proposed marriage to a “skillful hunter, a man of the field” [Ibid. 25:27] – for fear that he would treat her roughly. Ya’akov ends up married to both – and though the Torah does not recommend the practice to coming generations, “Neither shall you take a rival wife to her sister, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time,” [Leviticus 18:18] – it did work well for him.
Rakhel and Leah complemented each other rather well. One might almost say that their qualities are usually combined by a single wife. One was mistress of the home, and the other the object of love and desire. One was a natural ‘mother’ and the other an object of adoration, a beauty to admire and keep from the changes that childbearing is sure to bring. Each, in turn, loved her man with devotion and selflessness – and each was willing to do whatever was necessary to please him.
Rakhel, to be sure, was special and unique to Ya’akov, “the love of his life,” the outstanding personality that stood out in every crowd, that knew how to handle situations frought with danger, as when her father was looking for his household gods, which she hid under the rags she sat on when he came to smite his son-in-law – but feared to do so without benefit of the self same ‘gods’ to protect him in his scheme. Leah, mistress of the household, mother of children, partner to her husband, was blessed with a long and successful life in his company.
It is interesting to note how history played a trick on Ya’akov and his two sisters-wives. The one that was barren for so long, is remembered as the ultimate mother because of the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not. Thus says the Lord; Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future, says the Lord, that your children shall come again to their own border.” [Jer. 31:14-16] Rakhel becomes patron saint of all the children of Israel, the suffering mother who lived yearning for children and died giving birth to the last of Ya’akov’s sons.
As for Leah, she is not mentioned by the prophet. She is not a sentinel, nor one to whom the generations will venerably turn to intercede with the God of the Fathers. However, she received the reward wish-for by every loving wife – to spend eternity at her husband’s side. It is Leah that is buried in the Cave of Makhpelah, next to Avraham and Sara, Yitzkhak and Rivkah, and her own life’s mate, father Ya’akov. Blessed is the man who is fortunate enough to have even one wife as loving, caring, and empowering as the wives of father Yisrael - each of them a woman of valor, of favor, and of the finest qualities God meant to give man in a help-mate.

Amen

Shabbat shalom

 

 

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