Thursday, November 25, 2010


The conflict between brothers is a recurring theme in the Torah. It starts with Kayin and Havel, continues with Yitzchak and Yishmael, re-emerges with Yaakov and Esav, and now comes to a climax with Yosef and his brothers.

Yosef is his father's favorite, as indeed was Esav, but this time we know that the favorite is designated for greatness because of the dreams he gets. His father must surely have realized how much Yosef was hated by his brothers, because he knew that Yosef was talking to everyone about his dreams.

So why did he send him off alone, a long way away from home to them? Surely he might have guessed that he was putting him in an invidious position, that something might happen. Or did he, as most parents do, fail to recognize what he would rather not have seen? In other words, is the conflict between brothers something built into them? Is it their fault? Or could you say that it was the fault of the parents?

In the case of Kayin and Havel, there is no textual basis for suggesting that Adam and Chava contributed. But in the case of Esav and Yaakov there certainly was. The Torah says that Yitzchak favored Esav whereas Rivkah preferred Yaakov. And in the case of Yosef it is clear that the colored coat was a sign of favoritism.

Was this favoritism blind in Yitzchak's case? It seems so, both literally and figuratively. But what of Yaakov? The Torah says that his reaction to the dreams of Yosef was to "mark" the situation. Perhaps he felt that Yosef had a special mission and was merely carrying out a Divine plan--in which case he might have felt that God would protect him.

There is another issue however. If it is clear that one child is indeed suited to a specific role, shouldn’t a parent encourage him or her, even if it means showing some favoritism (so long as this favoritism is balanced by showing love for the other children in equal measure)?

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Yaakov seems to be on the run constantly (though this is tens of years after his flight from Esav). He has escaped from Lavan even though he was pursued by this acrimonious father-in-law, and now he faces his brother Esav. He had no option. He could not have stayed where he was. Now, terrified, he moves his wives and children across the river Yabok to meet Esav. He divides them up into two separate camps in the hope that if one camp is massacred the other will survive. And he is found on the other side of the river, the wrong side.

What was he doing there? The Midrash says he was collecting some pots and pans that had been left behind. But it makes just as much sense to think that he might have been having second thoughts, even possibly thinking of fleeing.

An angel grapples with him. They fight till dawn. Yaakov is "fouled", but he hangs on and only lets the angel go with a promise of a blessing. The angel tells him his name should now be Yisrael, meaning "he fights with God and God and wins". It seems that this gives him the confidence to go back and face his brother, and happily everything is settled amicably.

Some commentators talk about this incident as involving an encounter with a real angel; others see it as a dream. In modern psychological terms we can see Yaakov wrestling with himself, his own anxiety, and finally overcoming his fear. But isn't it interesting that the name Yisrael, Israel, actually implies that we are constantly in a state of conflict, spiritually and physically. Isn't this precisely the state of the Jewish people now, at odds with ourselves and at odds with our enemies? Yet this story tells us we should have the confidence that we can sort things out.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Yaakov runs away from Esav his brother. His mother (Rivkah) has told his father (Yitzchak) that the reason he is leaving is to find a wife back home, where Rivkah came from, even though we know that Esav is the problem. But of course, it is possible to combine both reasons in such a way as to repeat the experience of the previous generation. Then Eliezer, sent by Avraham, had gone back to Aram and straight to the well to find a wife. This time too Yaakov ends up at the well, but not as a wealthy man carrying camel-loads of goodies. He is poor, with only his physical strength to offer. He arrives towards evening and strikes up a conversation with the local shepherds. He enquires after Lavan, his uncle, and at that moment Rachel appears with her sheep (women had careers back then too!)

Yaakov is smitten. You might have thought that he was a weakling, for this is the image we have of him as a "tent dweller ". But he is strong enough to roll a heavy stone off the well to enable the shepherds to water their flocks, and he personally waters Lavan's sheep, in a reversal of the earlier roles.

Once again Lavan runs out to the well, but this time he is disappointed--no money, no gold ornaments--and he takes Yaakov in to work for his keep. Very different. But the similarity of the well is no coincidence. Water is the source of life and fertility. It is also the community center and the natural meeting place for strangers, as well as locals. But in practice it is a very reliable place to test character.

The Talmud says people can be judged by the way they drink, spend their money, and do or do not control their anger. When a person is thirsty, or competing for attention, the baser inner characteristics emerge. If you are thirsty and tired and can still be considerate and use what resources you have left to help others, then this is as much a sign to Rachel that Yaakov is a good man as Rivkah showed her goodness to Eliezer in a previous generation.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


This is where we are introduced to the character of Esav, the all-time baddie. The rabbis accuse him of violence, rape, murder, cruelty, and almost any crime you care to mention. We know that "Esav" or "Edom" was used in the Midrash and Talmud as a code for Rome, and they had plenty of good reasons to be anti-Roman at the time, given the aggressive way the Romans dealt with the Jewish insurrections.

But if you look carefully at Esav’s character as it appears in the Torah, he does not seem to be quite as bad as he is made out to be. It is true that he doesn’t seem to care about his birthright, but then most people when they are totally exhausted might want to revive first and think later. It is true that he threatens to kill Yaakov, but then there were extenuating circumstances. He is clearly upset when he does not get the blessing. He cries, hardly the response of a hard, bad man.

The case against Esav is that he is a man of uncontrolled impulse, a dissembler, and religious hypocrite. The very characteristics that Yaakov has, being calm and calculating, even single-minded, are qualities that suit leadership far more than emotional explosiveness.

One might think that the qualities that differentiate Yaakov from Esav would be the ones that the Talmud might have admired in Rome. The Jewish rebels seem to have exhibited the qualities of Esav rather than Yaakov. Based on the gemara in Gittin, they actually killed other Jews who disagreed with them, put violence above negotiation, and tried to bully their way over the wishes of the majority. And if you take Josephus's version of Masada, they went in for mass suicides, against halacha.

But remember that most of the religious leaders at the time of the great rebellions against Rome were not in favor of violence. Like Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai, they wanted accommodation because they saw Torah and spirituality as being more important than land and politics. It seems to me that those same lessons apply today.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Chayei Sarah

This week, the subtheme seems to be the way we speak with forked tongue! Sometimes to good effect and sometimes not. Avraham wants to buy a cave to bury Sarah. He approaches Efron the Hitite, who says that he will give it for nothing. "Besides," he says, "what is a field worth four hundred shekels between friends?" So Avraham weighs out the money and pays him. Efron was not being honest when he said he would give it for free, otherwise he would not have mentioned the exact valuation of the property. Here is a negative example of doublespeak.

Then Eliezer is sent to find a wife for Yitzchak. Avraham tells him specifically to go back to his homeland and birthplace to look for a wife, but he says nothing about going back to the family. After he has found Rivkah, he says to her family that "my master made me swear that I would not take a wife from the local tribes amongst whom I live, but to go back to my father’s house and to my family to take a wife for my son."

Did Eliezer accurately report what Avraham had said? On the face of it he did not. He clearly made out that Avraham had mentioned his family to make it seem all the more appropriate and amazing that the kind qualities he was looking for could be found in Avraham’s family. Yet Eliezer went to the well where anyone might have been, not just family. So he was slightly distorting the truth in order to persuade her family that Rivkah was the Divinely ordained wife for Isaac.

On the other hand, maybe Eliezer was reading deeper into Avraham’s intentions than the text lets on. Perhaps the art is to read between the lines and to try to understand what is being said to you on more than a superficial level. The Torah provides guidance. It is not just a book of laws and customs, but also one that helps us understand human nature better.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


God appears to Avraham as he sits at the opening to his tent. He looks up and he sees three men. He runs to meet them and says, "My Lord, please do not go away from your servant. Let me get some water and wash your feet and rest under the tree."

The simple meaning of this is that God appears to Avraham in the shape of three men who he sees and invites in. When he says, "My Lord, please do not go away," he is addressing the leader. And later it transpires they are messengers from another world. From this we might learn that angels are really humans acting in such a way as to actualize some Divine plan. We can all be agents of God in some way or another. Avraham clearly saw them as humans, because he offers them creature comforts.

But the Midrash puts a very different spin on this narrative. The Midrash sees the following sequence. God appears to Avraham and they are communicating spiritually, when Avraham looks up and sees three men. He turns to God and says, "My Lord, please do not go away." And then he turns to the three men and says, "Let me get some water," etc.

The idea here is that, however important God is, there are certain types of human crises or obligations that are so important that one can actually tell God to wait. Important as God is, as spirituality is, in the end it must enhance our relationship with other humans. This world we are in is predominantly a human one. This must determine our priorities. Of course, if we do not have a spiritual base to our lives to begin with, we might be inclined to a more selfish outlook. But in the end, being a good person is what God really wants of us.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lech Lecha

This week we read about Avram, emerging as the first monotheist, the founder of our tradition. He is the first character in the Torah whose relationship with God seems to make him a better, more caring person. It is this that distinguishes him from, say, Noach.

There is a well-known tradition, not in the Torah itself, that Avram’s father, Terach, was an idol maker, and that one day Avram smashed the idols and put the hammer into the hand of the largest idol. When Terach returned, Avram said that the idol with the hammer must have done it, and Terach realized how ineffectual his job was!

Maimonides says that they were not that stupid. After all, both in Ur and Egypt massive engineering projects and sophisticated calculations were common, even before this period. The error was in the symbolism, not the reality. Even making a symbol for God can be misleading, just as endowing humans with supernatural power, the Superman Syndrome, can be dangerously illusory. So was Terach a goodie or a baddie?

If you look at the text, it seems that he, rather than Avram, started the migration out of Ur and moved up the great rivers towards Charan, which was where he dies. This is all mentioned before God appears to Avram and tells him to go to the new land he will show him. Indeed, at the end of the previous chapter it actually says that Terach left in order to go towards Canaan, and that he took his son and nephew Lot with him.

Yes, you can say that the Torah does not go in chronological order. But you can also say that although Terach might not have been as great as Avram, he did have some merit. He did start the process. And Avram does want to back to his roots for a wife for Isaac. Maybe Terach was not so bad after all and even inadequate fathers can still have a positive impact on their kids.