Vayishlach by Roberta Baruch - date unknown
Each story in our Torah tells in some measure the story of our lives: a memory that is built from our very protoplasm, a consciousness that surfaces when we find a story that touches us, explains our being, informs our present and portends our future. Torah contains many such stories, and the one I speak about tonight is one that has touched me deeply, troubled me, changed me and continues to tell me who I am, where I come from, and where I am going: The eternal questions, the answer to why I study Torah, why Jews study Torah.
Jacob becomes Israel: I concentrate on only a few verses: Genesis 32:25-32. This cryptic tale takes place during the night after Jacob attempts to mollify his brother Esau - you remember this story, Jacob's mother Rebecca conceived when her husband Isaac asked the Lord to give her a child and she bore twins, Esau the red, the hairy, the hunter, and Jacob. Pay attention! Names are important in the Bible and to our own lives. Jacob, Ja-a-kov. The name evokes laughter, Ja-a-kov. It means the heel in Hebrew. Jacob emerges from the womb holding his brother Esau's heel. It also means to overreach - and to be deceitful. Jacob the overreacher, Jacob the deceitful, who lived, like all overreachers, like all deceiver, in anxiety and confusion.
You remember Jacob took Esau's birthright for a mess of pottage. And Rebecca insisted Jacob steal Esau's blessing. She disguised Jacob when Isaac was old and his eyes too dim to see, by putting hairy animal skins over Jacob's smooth skin. So Isaac gave Jacob Esau's blessing "May God give you the dew of heavens and the fat of the fields the Lord has blessed. 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 those who curse you and blessed they who bless you."
Esau cried for his own blessing and hated Jacob, harbored a grudge against Jacob and swore to kill him. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to Haran, to his uncle Laban. There Jacob sees Rachel by the well and falls in love at first sight. There he is deceived by his uncle Laban and marries Leah instead of Rachel. Anxiety and confusion? Jacob often seemed not understand what was happening around him. He fell in love with Rachel but marries Leah of the weak eyes, the elder, tricked by Laban. How did that happen? Jacob didn't know, or did he?? - in this story of intrigue, he may indeed at some level have known, how could he not?? Whatever the motive, whatever the knowledge, Jacob indentures himself to Laban for 14 years to pay for this confusion. He has six sons during those years with Leah. He cohabits with Leah's maid Zilphah and fathers two more and then with Rachel's maid Bilhah and fathers two more after that. People have served him. Finally, after many years of barrenness, Rachel is blessed by God and bears Joseph, and then his last born son, Benjamin - 12 sons, the 12 Tribes of Israel. "Nations shall serve you." No, not quite yet. It is still Jacob. His sons give him nothing but trouble. He bears the blessing of Esau - he has carried out the prophesy of his mother's late conception. He has lived in deceit and with the burden of the blessing.
Twenty years pass - Jacob has become rich. He fears God. He has changed greatly. He now must return home to fulfill the prophesy: to meet his future, he must confront his past. Jacob is still greatly afraid Esau will kill him but he starts his journey and sends a message ahead to Esau. And he sends ahead the rich gifts, the munificent bounty of his 14 years of subjugation, across the stream so that perhaps his brother will forgive him. There is something to be said about these 14 years of indenturehood. What does he learns from those years: can we assume patience? kindness? tolerance? At least we know that he has become financially independent - some call his methods of obtaining that security trickery. Can we be kinder? Maybe those years signify a metaphor of toil, subjugation and ultimately of survival, even prevailing, that brings Jacob to the point where he can give away what he once had to steal. Esau, by now himself rich, does not need the gifts but Jacob remains frightened of confronting his past, and he needs to give the gifts even if Esau does not need to receive them. Jacob stays behind by himself, does not cross the stream, his gifts are sent on but he waits on the other shore by himself. Perhaps he cannot bring himself to confront Esau. He does not know how Esau will be changed after twenty years. Perhaps Jacob is, as Jacob is wont to be, anxious and confused. And not exactly ready to see Esau.
And so to the verses. I use the text from the Jewish Bible according to the Masoretic Text from Sinai Publishing: And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day/And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him./And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me./And he said unto him. What is thy name? And he said, Jacob./And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel, for as a prince has thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed./And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there./And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel; for I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved./And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh.
There are various translations from the Hebrew of the creature with whom Jacob wrestles. It may even be that Jacob thinks he is wrestling a demon from the stream that he has been afraid to cross. Or it may simply be a man, or a messenger from God, or an angel, or God Himself. Or could it be, as some say, a dream, so that Jacob wrestles with his own unconscious, personified as a man who asks his name?
Emily Dickinson, in "A little east of Jordan," calls Jacob the "bewildered Gymnast" who "found he had worsted God" and "sublimely inverts" the blessing and takes it for herself: "I will not let thee go except I bless thee." She takes the act upon herself and blesses the man, the angel, the messenger of God, God Himself. But Jacob in our story does not bless the other. He wrests a blessing from the man, and gets permanently damaged in the struggle. If we think of this as a dream, the injury may be metaphor - expressed as injury to the thigh muscle, or the hip joint. Whatever it is, Jacob limps, or walks haltingly in the morning to met his brother Esau after twenty years. Jacob is humbled.
The man asks Jacob his name - don't forget names. Jacob replies very simply "Jacob." And the man gives Jacob a new name: "your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and you have prevailed." From Ja-a-kov, the heel, the overreacher, the deceiver, the confused and anxious one, Ya-a-kov-el, the one whom God makes to limp, Ja-a-kov, the laughable - to Israel, the striver, Ya-shar-el, the one whom God makes straight.
Jacob becomes Israel only after he has striven with the mysterious "Beings divine and human and prevailed." Jacob insists on a blessing but the blessing is not specified. How are we to understand this story? The outlines are simple, the words are few, but the psychological impact is profound and powerful. Jacob's very sense of himself - his very self, from the moment of birth - literally hangs on his brother. And his mother. And his mother's view of him as not quite capable - a son for whom she has to lie and prevaricate and manipulate and devise schemes or he will never be able to fulfill her God given prophesy. We are never given a sense of Jacob's actual capabilities. We do not know much about Jacob. We have a physical description: he is smooth. Nor do we know if he is smart, or decisive or courageous, we do not know these things, that is, until he wrestles with the man. Until then, it is his mother who provides us all we know about Jacob - she dresses him in animal skins. She tells him to flee to Haran where Jacob promptly falls in love at first sight - a journey's time away from mom and his first action is to fall in love and then pay for it with 14 years of work.
And what of Jacob's father, Isaac? Is he really fooled by the feel of the animal skins on Jacob's arms? I think not. Isaac asks twice if this is Esau. Is this confusion of old age? Or is this, perhaps, conspiracy? In the end, Isaac bestows the blessing of founding a people on Jacob and Esau again gets a mess of pottage.
What are we to think of these, our patriarchs, our forbears? Isaac and Rebecca have taught Jacob that deceit begets family prosperity, that fulfilling a higher purpose demands conspiracy and manipulation, that the end justifies the means. It is not hard to imagine why Jacob continues to make bad mistakes, continues to be anxious and confused, that it would take divine intervention (if that is how we are to understand the wrestling in the night) to impel Jacob on his journey of change, of transformation, into adulthood.
Confronted by the man, Jacob, true to his name, hangs on. He does not quit even though he has now been broken. And not only does he hang on - he also asks for the blessing for himself. He asks. When he was younger he stole the blessing - his mother inspired, no, required him to receive the blessing - he was it seems a willing co-conspirator - after all, it appears he was some 35 years old at the time of the stolen blessing. But now, wrestling with the man, he demands the blessing, and, as Emily would have it - he blesses the wrestler. No conspiracy. No manipulation. Just straight out - "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
What is the blessing? It is not spelled out in this story. Perhaps the blessing is the new name. Jacob has been afraid to meet his brother. He does not cross the stream. He stays alone on the other side. He wrestles with the man. He is injured. He does not let go until he is blessed. He gets a new name. And in the morning, he limps toward his brother who, perhaps to Jacob's surprise, no longer seems to harbor the grudge, no longer wants to kill him. Again, we are given precious little detail. But Esau too has changed over twenty years. If the ages are right, the twins are now 55 years old. Hard to carry grudges - takes too much energy.
Can we expect that Jacob has changed overnight? Is this a miracle? No, I quote the very next chapter, 33:1: "Jacob saw." We are back to Jacob. But now Jacob is also called Israel. Perhaps two traditions, but intricately interwoven, like our own selves - intricately interwoven parts - not all of one thing or another, but caught by the heel, caught in the circle.
The rest of the Jacob story is summary. The wrestling in the night, I believe, is the denouement of Jacob's life. His son Joseph becomes the focus for the next chapters. But Jacob - Israel - moves at last from childhood to adulthood. Our tradition tells us, in so few words, what it is really like to become an adult. We can limp into our own future no matter what we have been taught, no matter how old we become, no matter how we have been damaged along the way, we continue to have the capacity to grow and change.
Some of my friends have asked me why I chose the story of a patriarch instead of one of the noble women of the Bible. They know I consider myself a feminist - why Jacob? Because I believe Jacob and the blessing he wrests from the man are interchangeable - if you read the passage for the first time it is difficult to know who is talking to whom, which line is whose - "I will not let thee go unless you bless me/I bless you." In the end, it comes to the same thing. Just as it comes to the same thing with male/female and with ends and means. Jacob's gender does not matter in this story. It is Jacob as archetype, Jacob as infant, Jacob as child, Jacob as sibling, Jacob as parent, and most of all, Jacob as striver/wrestler/prevailer, with whom I identify.
At some point in my own life barely knowing what I asked for, and not knowing the bounds of the journey, I asked for truth. And with that search for truth came a name change. I chose it myself. I shall say I chose to change my name but the rabbi can attest that did not come easily: it took several years and in the end, it was not a choice but a blessing.
Remember how important names are. My name, Baruch - it means blessed and praised. It is I who have learned to bless and praise. The promise that Jacob received, the blessing that he wrested from the man, the name change, has power in it. The power frees those of us who either seek it or are given it. Jacob, near the end of his sojourn on earth, called the days of the years of his life short and dark. I hope to be able to say near the end of my days that they have been long and light. I know that my Torah, my story, my heritage, my mess of pottage, my blessing, and my study will continue to bring me light and joy. And so may it be for you also . . .
D’Var Torah – Vayigash Genesis/Bereshit
Mark Burger – 2 January 2004 - 8 Tevet 5764
One year ago, I gave a dvar on this same portion on our Egyptian slave-like dependency on cheap energy to maintain our affluent lifestyle. I am unhappy to report that, in spite of some improvements, that slavish dependency has not changed as we look to our present-day Josephs to mortgage our children’s future and increasingly our own future in view of the coming lean years. The peril comes in three forms – first, we continue to rely more and more on countries that harbor terrorism or instability for our daily energy needs. Second, we fail to take full advantage of the on-going revolution in cleaner energy products and services, costing us jobs, businesses and a worsening balance of trade. Third, environmental degradation of our world and our children’s world still threatens to poison us in the name of affluence.
The numbers continue to be alarming – the U.S. will soon be importing over 60 percent of its petroleum from outside its borders and shores, most of that coming from violent, corrupt or unstable regimes like Saudi Arabia, the former Soviet Union, Nigeria and Venezuela. In spite of all the financial incentives and advanced exploration and extraction technology, the world is consuming about one billion barrels of oil more than it is finding every month, which is what the U.S. consumes about every fifty days. So draining Alaska of its 10 billion barrels of oil would last us about 1-1/2 years. U.S. oil production peaked in 1972, world oil production will peak sometime between 2006 and 2012.
Next year, we may also be importing for the first time over ten percent of our natural gas consumption, with the biggest increases coming in hazardous liquefied form from Saudi Arabia and Algeria. Reliance on these resources is inherently unstable for countries that extract them, like the OPEC countries, or that use them, like the United States.
Another issue is that other countries with growing middle classes, like China and India, want the affluence we have, quickly soaking up existing resources and making out of date comfortable predictions of resource longevity. Canada will soon begin large-scale exports of coal to China, with U.S. coal extractors soon following suit. So the supply of centuries of coal usage within our borders may change to merely decades.
While it is best to have a concerted national effort to free ourselves from dependency, pollution and economic non-competitiveness, there is much we can do as individuals, communities and states. Indeed, that has been most of recent American progress in becoming greener and cleaner - action from the grass roots. So here is the call to action focusing on three significant fronts to make an immediate impact.
(1) Reduce petroleum consumption. Your next vehicle purchase should be a hybrid model. There exist right now cars that can take five passengers very nicely. Starting later this year, you can get a choice of sports utility vehicles, and next year pickup trucks or mini-vans. You will save up to half of your present fuel consumption. Every five hundred vehicles that switch from a guzzler to a hybrid will eliminate one gas pump. Every one hundred thousand vehicles that switch will avoid the need for one super tanker from an OPEC member. Your buying a hybrid vehicle sends a clear message to the world’s automakers of the need to phase out the internal combustion engine. If you don’t want to personally own a hybrid car, you can look to share in one.
(2) Reduce natural gas, coal and nuclear power consumption. Reduce the energy consumption of your house or building now, using insulation, better windows and replacing appliances with ones that are Energy Star rated and, after that, installing solar heating or electric systems, if appropriate. It is affordable if financed by mortgages or other long-term instruments, plus you will have a more comfortable place and one that will increase in value. If you can’t, or don’t want to install solar, buy green power or their emission credits, also called “green tags” from solar or wind sources, which you can do now through the internet.
(3) Use clean energy technologies. There is a new way to economically support Israel, and that is to use the clean energy technologies that they develop. Clean energy systems can go on temples and schools as well as private buildings. Buying handicrafts from Israel is nice, but this goes one better.
There is of course communications with our elected and appointed officials on getting more funds, improving our codes and standards and so on. But there exists an infrastructure that we can use to deliver us from supporting pollution, terrorism and economic instability. I have more information on this call to action in the rotunda. We can deal with the coming lean years by being green. Amen.
Center for Neighborhood Technology - www.cnt.org
Chicago Center for Green Technology – www.cityofchicago.org/Environment//GreenTech/
Clean Car Campaign – www.cleancarcampaign.org
Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life – www.coejl.org
ENERGY STAR? - www.energystar.gov
Greener Cars - www.GreenerCars.com
I Gosm – The Smarter Way to Drive – www.i-go-cars.org
Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation – www.illinoiscleanenergy.org
Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Bureau of Energy and
Illinois Solar Energy Association – www.illinoissolar.org
Mainstay Energy (Green Power) – www.mainstayenergy.com
Methane Madness - www.eeba.org/conference/2003/presentations/Udall_Randy.pdf
Rocky Mountain Institute – www.rmi.org
Solar Energy In Israel - www.us-israel.org/jsource/Environment/Solar.html
Solel Solar Systems Ltd (Israel) – www.solel.com
U.S. Green Building Council, Chicago Chapter – www.usgbc.org/chapters/chicago/
When Will The Joy Ride End? - www.oilcrisis.com/debate/udall/joyride.htm hubbert.mines.edu/news/Udall-Andrews_99-1.pdf
Zero Energy Buildings – www.eere.energy.gov/buildings/zeroenergy
November 10, 2000 by Morris Seeskin
With the election of the new President sitting in uncharted waters last night I gave thought to rewriting my D'var Torah and talking about developments in Palm Beach County. I concluded that my comments tonight, as originally prepared, just might be applicable to post-election matters.
In today's parsha, Lech L'cha, Avram is in the House of his parents in Ur. Adonai Tells Avram to go to the place that Adonai will show him. Avram is to leave his nuclear family, leave the people and the ways he knows, and go. Go where? Avram doesn't know. For what purpose? Avram isn't told. How long will the trip take? Avram has no way to know. What is the path? Avram has no map. His is to be a trip into the unknown. This is the watershed moment in the whole Torah.
At this moment, when Adonai says "Lech L'cha - Go", Avram starts down the path that ultimately will lead to Egypt, to Sinai, to the creation of the Jewish people, and to the founding of three great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is also the path that leads to Babylonia, to Masada, to the Spanish Inquisition, and to Auchwitz. It is the path that leads each of us to join together in this place and this time.
Later, in the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, Adonai again tells Avram, whose name has been changed to Abraham, "Lech L'cha", take your son Isaac and go to the place that I will show you. Where is that? Abraham will find out later. There Abraham is to sacrifice Isaac, the one who Adonai has promised will be Abraham's heir and the father of many nations. How will that happen if Abraham sacrifices Isaac? There is no answer for Abraham. The promise of Lech L'cha is only that he must go into the unknown to experience what is there. That is most disconcerting, but in truth that is the way life is. There are no guarantees ... ever.
Almost a hundred years ago my grandfather, Morris Schaps, then thirteen years old, and only recently having become Bar Mitzvah, heeded Adonai's words. He left his family in the Jewish Pale and the people and ways he knew there. He came to this country not really knowing where he was going, what he would do here, or how he would get along. He didn't believe that the streets literally were paved with gold and he didn't know what his new life held in store. For him, "Lech L'cha." Eventually he brought his twelve brothers and sisters and their parents to this country. Today I stand here only because my grandfather heeded the words, "Lech L'cha."
Eileen and I are soon to be empty nesters. We are alive, vital and looking ahead. When we stop to listen, we hear the message, "Lech L'cha." Go! How will it be for us? We don't know. There are no guarantees. Still, we must go. "Lech L'cha."
Tonight, our daughter Beth is in California seeking new opportunities in Silicon Valley. Our oldest son Aaron is back from doing research in Cairo and has returned to New York to complete his dissertation. Middle son Jonathan is at home in Minnesota. "Lech L'cha." Joel, our youngest, is a senior in high school. He is planning to leave our house for college next August. He really isn't sure what he will do with his life or where he will do it. He doesn't know how he will find out. That is the way of Adonai's world. "Lech L'cha."
Earlier this year our first grandchild, Elijah, was born. His parents aren't thinking about it yet and he is much too young to understand, but ever so quietly, Adonai is whispering to him, "Lech L'cha." The time will come to leave your parents and their house. Be prepared for the path I will show you. Go! Go where? When? How will Elijah know? How will he know the right place? Will the trail be marked? What lies along the way? No answers for Elijah, no expectation that he ever will be provided with answers. For him there is only the promise that this is what Adonai has in store for him. There is only the eventual understanding that Elijah is precious in Adonai's eyes and that Elijah will have to follow his own way. He is only seven months old. "Lech L'cha."
Listen! Tonight, Adonai is telling each of us the same thing first told to Abraham. Whatever our age. Whatever our station in life. "Lech L'cha." GO!
There are no promises about what lies ahead. No guarantees. No certainty. No way to know. No way to find out. No way to predict the future. There is only a journey into the unknowable tomorrow and the knowledge that this is the way of Adonai's world.
Put your trust in Adonai. "Lech L'cha." Go to the place that Adonai will show you, that Adonai will show each of us! Blessed is Adonai.
D'Var Torah - Mark Burger, Noach, Bereshit 6:9-11:32, 6 Heshvan 5760, October 15, 1999
The more I read the story of Noah, the world and God, the more I've been troubled. Noah seems so colorless and void, John Voight's recent portrayal of him notwithstanding. Even Torah has an ambivalent view of him. Noah was considered an "eesh tzadik", a righteous man, but could have been a "nefesh tzadik", a righteous, or spiritual soul. He was "tameem", blameless without fault, the word "tameem" can also mean meek, nebbish, like the way Jacob was compared to Esau. Noah walked with God, but not the Lord. Noah was an ultra nice guy.
This was not a good time for God. His creation was going sour before him. This was not a case of two people, Adam and Eve, disobeying him. Nor of one guy killing another, as Cain did to Abel, and at least regretting it somewhat later. No, the whole place was going down.
So Noah was told to prepare for the ultimate corporate downsizing. He was given a budget and a small staff to salvage what assets the Boss considered saving. The Lord Himself handed out the pink slips. No corrective action. No golden parachutes. No outsourcing, spinoffs or vote by the Board of Directors or shareholders - well, wait, there was a vote by the only Board Member and Share Holder.
Boom, or whoosh, that was it. And Noah did as he was told. No protest. No comments. No anguish. Noah did "k'chal", just, as he was told. Now, wiping out all human and other terrestrial life is an astounding thing. It can make one speechless. Maybe that's what happened to Noah. Maybe he is the first case of post-traumatic stress disorder, getting drunk as soon as life on earth became "normal".
One sees floods about to happen every day. Businesses, governments, entire societies go along on their grooved rails. They sometimes are lawless or corrupt, described in Torah as "chamas", but more likely they are "yashav", or settled, soft or complacent as the people who tried and failed to build a tower at Babel to God.. And maybe that was Noah's gift. Maybe God was speaking to everyone, but only Noah paid attention. Noah at least prepared for change, did something different, risked ridicule and got out of a rut. That at least is something we can take with us in these times of mergers, technology driven changes and uncertainty, avoiding complacency in the face of an impending flood. Amen.
Friday, 25 December 1998
By Tricia Brauner
45:1 Yosef could no longer restrain himself in the presence of all who were stationed around him, he called out: Have everyone leave me! So no one stood (in attendance upon) him when Yosef made himself known to his brothers.
2 He put forth his voice in weeping: the Egyptians heard, Pharaoh’s household heard.
3 Then Yosef said to his brothers: I am Yosef. Is my father still alive? But his brothers were not able to answer him,
4 Yosef said to his brothers: Pray come close to me! They came close. He said: I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.
5 But now, do not be pained, and do not let (anger) rage in your eyes that you sold me here! For it was to save life that God sent me on before you.
In the Beginning: A New English Rendition of the Book of Genesis,
Translated by Everett Fox (New York: Schocken Books, 1983)
This evening I will talk about our human propensity to find meaning in adversity, our need to find purpose in events, especially those that seem bad, evil, or misfortunate. In religious terms, we call this God’s Providence.
This week’s parsha, Vayyigash, is part of a long narrative, the Joseph story, that explains how the Israelites ended up in Egypt and ultimately in slavery. In this parsha Jacob and his household—threescore and ten (a ‘magically perfect’ number, 7 x 10)—go down into Goshen, to the best Egyptian pastureland, as guests of Pharaoh.
And how did this journey begin? It began with Joseph being sold into slavery (8 chapters and two weeks ago, in parsha Vayyeshev).
Biblical scholars see at least two authors’ hands in the Joseph narrative. One author sees God’s providence at work, the other rejects the idea of God’s involvement and emphasizes human designs: Joseph’s brothers hated him because their father favored him and because Joseph—perhaps thoughtlessly, perhaps purposefully, told them his dreams of being superior to them (remember, dreams were thought to foretell the future). In fact, even Jacob rebuked Joseph for such dreams. And Joseph’s integrity in Egypt in resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife shows that he deserves to rise in power and position.
Anyway, the brothers plotted to kill Joseph. Reuben, however, hoping to save him and send him home to Jacob, convinced the others to throw him into an empty water cistern instead. And while the brothers were sitting around eating and talking about selling Joseph into slavery, some Midianites pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him themselves to an Ishmaelite trading caravan on its way to Egypt. To cover their complicity, the brothers bring to Jacob Joseph’s bloody coat. Was this not even more cruel than telling the truth? Were they also revenging themselves on the father who favored Joseph?
An important detail in the narrative is that Joseph himself acknowledged that he was “stolen away” (“ki goonov goonavti”—from the same root as “goniff” [40:15]). Yet in the passage we have just read, Joseph identifies himself to his brothers as “Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” Is this a bad fusing of the two separate narratives? a poor editing job?
I think that despite the emotion Joseph has shown—he wept so loudly that the whole palace heard him—Joseph is controlling the situation, just as he has controlled the economic situation in Egypt, building up stores against the coming famine. Remember this is the brother’ second trip to buy grain from Egypt. The first time, Benjamin, now the favorite son, remained behind with Jacob. Joseph immediately knew his brothers, but they didn’t recognize him: he’d been a seventeen-year-old adolescent when they last saw him and now he is an Egyptian official. Joseph made a pretense of putting his brothers under guard for three days as potential spies, then, keeping Simeon in prison, he sent the others back to Jacob with instructions to return with their youngest brother as proof of their truthfulness.
But remember, Joseph has overheard them acknowledging among themselves (in Hebrew, which they assumed he could not speak) that their misfortune is retribution for not heeding Joseph’s pleas when they threw him into the pit. And on their way home, what do they find but that their money has been returned in their sacks of grain! Their response is, “What is this that God has done to us?” (Ma zot asah elohim lanu? [42:28]). They see God, involving himself unexpectedly in their lives.
Of course, they have to come back to buy more grain, and they finally persuade Jacob to let Benjamin go with them so that the entire family will not starve. Reuben, who had tried to save Joseph, extravagantly offers his own two sons as surety for Benjamin (would a grandfather slay his grandchildren?).
On this second visit, Joseph entertains them! gives them a meal in his own house! When he sees Benjamin (who may have been just a small child when Joseph was taken to Egypt) he was so moved he had to leave the room and weep, but he still does not reveal his identity. And again he tests the brothers, returning their money surreptiously but also hiding his divining cup in Benjamin’s sack. He sends them away only to have them ‘captured’ and brought back. Is it a duplication in the narrative, or is it like a cat playing with a mouse, building the tension before the denouement?
Listen to what Judah says to Joseph when they are brought back. “What can we say?... God has found out your servants’ crime!” [44:16]. He is not referring to stealing the money or the cup, which he knows they did not do; he is speaking of their conduct toward Joseph their brother. Their guilt has not left them.
Judah then makes an impassioned plea for Benjamin for Jacob’s sake, for Jacob’s “soul is bound up with the lad’s soul” (“v’nafsho k’shurah v’nafsho”—the same expression describes the love of David and Jonathan [I Sam. 18:1])—and if Benjamin does not return, Jacob will die.
The ten guilty brothers, through Judah their spokesman, have come to the point where they can acknowledge without jealousy the special love of their father for one son—the very thing they could not tolerate about Joseph. And brought to this point by Joseph’s actions, they admit their guilt before an ostensible stranger, displaying a love for their father that could not possibly allow them this time to bring a bloody coat to him and tell him his child must be dead. Now they are ready to be confronted by Joseph himself.
And finally, Joseph sends away all the courtiers and retainers, and weeps aloud, so that others hear him, and says “Ani Yosef,” “I am Joseph.”
The psychological insight of the author continues in Joseph’s words to them. First he abruptly reveals who he is and asks after his father (at their previous meeting he asked after their father). Then he names their crime against him: “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” Recall that he has acknowledged that he was kidnapped and sold by the Ishmaelites, but the brothers bear the guilt—they had plotted against him, and it is not their fault somebody beat them to it. In their hearts they sold him.
Then Joseph says, “Do not be pained [other translators offer “grieved” or “distressed”], and do not let anger rage in your eyes [others: “be not angry with yourselves” or “do not reproach yourselves”], that you sold me here!” He understands their psychological state: admission of guilt, confusion, grief and repentance, anger at one’s self, and so on. He’s got them where he wants them. We might say he’s had his revenge.
But then after all this, after he has manipulated them, if you will, to see their sin, and confused or frightened them by revealing his identity simply as “ani Yosef,” he says, “Don’t feel bad, BECAUSE GOD BROUGHT ME HERE before you to save life” (ki l’mikhyeh sh’lakhani elohim lifneykhem). How many times have we heard someone say “It was God’s will”—usually referring to a death, perhaps untimely. Or “it’s all for the best.” We want to find some meaning in what appears to us to be senseless. We want to find a reason why there is suffering and cruelty and evil in the world. Why does a merciful God allow it?
But we are also taught that the end does not justify the means. If the brothers should not be sorry that they sold their brother into slavery because it was part of God’s purpose, does that mean they have no responsibility for the terrible deeds of doing away with their brother and presenting their father with his bloodied coat? Think of the pain they caused Jacob, as he imagined his beloved son so mauled and torn by a wild beast—perhaps a hyaena—that only a piece of his clothing remained. And what about Joseph? If he’d had therapy, what feelings he must have expressed against his brothers! Or was he from childhood such a believer in his dreams and in the providence of God that he comforted himself with the idea that all his suffering was a part of God’s plan.
I find it hard to believe that the same man who could so manipulate his brothers, bringing them more than once to humble themselves before him, as in his youthful dreams, seeming to be driven to test them in this way despite his overwhelming emotions (or perhaps because of them—we are not told precisely WHY he wept, after all), —that this man could sincerely say, after all that, “But don’t grieve over what you did to me, because God brought me here to save life.”
Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers would seem to have a fairytale quality, like Cinderella forgiving her wicked stepsisters and stepmother when she marries the prince: a triumph of goodness. I think that in this story, bringing together the two viewpoints of the narrators, the editor attempts to reconcile the idea that God interferes in human life for God’s own purposes with the notion of human responsibility, of the need for repentance and some sort of retribution. Joseph sees God’s purpose as “saving life,” a purpose that Torah teaches us is a primary principle of moral behavior. And not only did Joseph save his family’s lives, but also the lives of the Egyptians. (That the Egyptians ultimately sell themselves to Pharaoh for food is a darker ending to the story.) Surely a divinely-approved purpose.
A new play has recently opened in New York, “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” by Paul Rudnick. It is a “what if” retelling of the biblical stories and a commentary on contemporary religion. In an interview with the NY Times Rudnick said that one of his goals was “to imagine the events of the Bible without the absolute presence of God. What if the earliest humans experienced all the floods, Pharaohs, and seeming miracles of the traditional tales, but without knowing for sure what, if anything, might be causing the hubbub?”
Well, I think it likely that many of the people who experienced these things didn’t immediately think, Ah! God is doing this. It is only later, after reflection, that the human mind begins to put together the “miracles,” the unexpected fragments of events, good and bad, into some meaningful pattern. Perhaps Joseph was working this out for himself through his whole life in Egypt and through his dealings with his brothers over the time covered by their two trips to Egypt to buy food. Perhaps the authors and editor of the Joseph narrative in Genesis were working out the same contradictions: bad things were done; good things happened as a result. If the brothers hadn’t sold Joseph to Egypt, would Jacob’s family later have starved in the famine and the Jewish people not exist? What if, what if... Joseph was able to deal with the grief and pain in his life because he believed there was a purpose to it, and that sense of purpose was grounded in God.
Cynthia Barnard, 11/13/98
In reflecting on this parasha, and in particular the verses I have chanted tonight, I want to leave you with the image of Rebecca, who embodies some of our most profound Jewish values, and I want to leave you thinking about – believe it or not -- Niagara Falls.
The images in tonight’s parasha are wonderfully vivid. Rebecca approaches the well, and draws up water, again and again, refreshing the foolish, nameless servant and his camels. But she doesn’t just walk – she runs, she hurries, she even interrupts. She enters our story in the midst of the servant’s plaintive bargaining with God – before he had finished speaking. She quickly lowers her jug for the servant to drink. She exceeds his request to slake his own thirst and she hurries and runs to the well to draw water for his camels. (As so often in Torah, the great soul is one who cares for the welfare of God’s other creatures, the animals.)
Back and forth, we imagine her strong and lovely and intent on her work, quick and purposeful. The clean, lifesaving water pours rhythmically from her jug, over and over, satisfying man and beast.
Water is an image that dominates Torah from the very first ringing phrases of B’reishit through the end of Deuteronomy when Moses gazes across the Jordan. God pulled solid earth and rich seas apart from the rushing, formless void. God sent the Flood harshly to cleanse a corrupted world. Hagar is sent out with a meager skin of water to sustain herself and her son. The infant Moses floats to his foster mother, Pharoah’s daughter, while his sister and mother lurk, agonized, on the riverbank. The great Reed Sea parts for Moses’ ragtag band of slaves, closes its torrents over the heads of the Egyptian pursuers. At Meribah, Moses loses control and in his anger defies God, as he strikes the rock which will yield precious water for the desert wanderers. Water is certainly the most important natural resource in the desert and in Canaan. Water makes up seventy percent of our earth, seventy percent of our bodies. Even today, more traditional congregations continue to include in the longer version of the Sh’ma and its blessings the section of Deuteronomy in which God promises that faithful worship and righteous behavior will be rewarded with rain in its season.
And so Rebecca teaches us so much. She teaches us to bring water to those who need it, and to bring it in a great hurry. To do right, and to do it now. To know what is needed, to listen and even to exceed what is asked, and to do it quickly. To bring water to those who cannot get it for themselves. To pour out the water again and again, to slake thirst, to refresh the withered and sere, to run to the task.
Rebecca is a one-woman Niagara Falls. She is water, sustenance, endless tzedakah and generosity, rushing and hurrying and powerful in fulfilling God’s plan in a simple, brief encounter with a bumbling servant and his tired camels. She is chesed, that special sort of loving-kindness imbued with spiritual luster, that is so hard to translate from Hebrew to English.
Rebecca has probably run to the well for dozens of thirsty strangers before this very special one arrived on this very special day. Niagara Falls goes about its business day and night, in rainy season and dry season. Our chesed must flow constantly as well, day and night, whether acknowledged or private, whether in response to loud demands or silently proferred.
Hillel reminds us, “If not now, when?” and the sages comment that he did not say, “If not today, when?” – he said now. This moment. There may not be another moment in this day, or tomorrow, or the day after. We must hurry to tzedakah, to righteousness, to generosity, to chesed. We too must be Niagara Falls.
Lauren Levrant, 11/13/98
When I first looked at this portion, there were many directions that I could have taken. First, I thought it was about a father who didn’t want his son to marry a shicksa. Granted, these weren't just people who worshipped a different god, these were people who performed human sacrifice for their god. But a d’var on the evils of intermarriage, I didn’t want to go there.
Then, I thought about Abraham’s decision to send his servant to find a wife for his son. Yes, he was getting on in years, but if you read on, you’ll see that after Isaac is all set up with a wife, Abraham takes up with Keturah and fathers 6 more children. Not too old, I guess. If I continued on this track, I could speak about hiring surrogates to care for your children, versus doing the job yourself. I sure didn’t want to go there
Another train of thought led me to ponder as to where Isaac was living since the Akedah. Was he at the Well of the Living One Who Sees with Ishmael? Had he deserted the father who had almost sacrificed him to live with his half brother and his fathers rejected concubine? Is it possible that the story of our revered ancestors is really just the story of a dysfunctional family, not much different from the rest of us? I really didn’t want to go there.
So, where do I want to go with this? I want to go in a positive direction. To find the love Abraham felt for his son, and for his God. The respect the servant had for his master and his masters God. And the love God had for the family he had chosen.
Yes, Abraham chose not to go back to Aram himself. He sent a surrogate, but there he was. A very wealthy man. Blessed with everything, but a daughter. The only monotheist living among idol worshiping, child sacrificers. Arranged marriage was probably the way to go. Where else was he to find the best matchmaker, but from his own household. In his favor, I’d have to say he chose wisely. He selected his eldest servant. A man who showed respect for the God of Abraham. A man who even felt comfortable enough with his master s God to as him for help in the task he was given. It has even been suggested that this servant , who many believe to be Eliezar, had a daughter he hoped would marry Isaac. And despite his disappointment, he did as he as asked. This could have been Abraham’s best means of securing the right bride for his son. A woman who would follow in Sarah s noble footsteps, in her righteous path. By having her brought to them, in Canaan, instead of sending Isaac there, Abraham insured that his descendants would not be influenced by the remaining idolaters in his family, they would remain in the land that God had promised them and keep the Covenant.
The relationship between Abraham’s servant, Eliezar and God is also an interesting one, too. While Abraham seems assured that the appropriate bride will be found, Eliezar is apprehensive. Maybe he won t find her. Maybe she will refuse to return with him. But, he is comfortable enough with the God of his master to ask him for a favor. He even hesitates before proposing his plan, to show his respect.
And God, what about him? He answers Eliezar’s prayer. Despite injunctions against omens and divinations, he gives exactly the sign asked for. He makes sure that there is continuity. Isaac will marry the right woman, one who possesses both generosity and chutzpah. A proper matriarch for the chosen people.
Doing the best you can for your child, showing respect, following directions against your own personal desires, as Teyve’s wife Golda would say, If that’s not love what is?
D'var Torah - Lech L'cha October 30, 1998 by Susan Weiss
In preparing to read and talk about this week's portion, Lech L'cha, I often felt as excited as if I were embarking on a journey along with Abraham and Sarah. I kept wondering, though, why Abraham? (And Sarah--because although this is not acknowledged overtly in Torah, I must think of them together). Why were these people singled out to break the pattern--to go to a strange land and found a great nation. Were they such extraordinary people? About Abraham, there are many legends--most pointing to his great strength and might: that he walked, talked and cared for himself at 20 days old, and that, in adulthood, he was as tall as 70 men put together. About Sarah, there are fewer legends, although there are stories about her beauty--so dazzling that it nearly blinded an angel who had come to tell her that she was to give birth to a son--at age 90! Midrash attempts to show the young Abraham's steadfast belief in one God in the face of great obstacles: Most of us have heard about Abraham's father, the idol maker, and Abraham's clever attempts to persuade customers not to buy the idols.
However, my point of reference is the Torah, and Torah presents quite a different picture; in the Torah, we do not even meet Abraham until he is 75 years old. Sarah is 65. We have little information about Abraham's early life and none about Sarah's. The few bits of information we have do not show any specialness: Abraham's father was Terah; there were at least two brothers, one of whom died, leaving a son Lot, who lives with the family and travels with Abraham and Sarah. We do not know that Terah made or worshiped idols or, for that matter, that Abraham didn't.
Were they chosen because of their great virtue? Although that is the claim of some, I doubt it. In the story of Noah, the Torah states "Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age. Noah walked with God." Such an attribution about Abraham and Sarah is conspicuous in its absence. Abraham and Sarah were certainly not evil people, but it would be a stretch to call either one a paragon of virtue. When a famine in the land forces them to move to Egypt, Abraham becomes worried that others might covet his wife because of her great beauty. He says to her, "If the Egyptians see you and think ‘She is his wife,' they will kill me and let you live. Please say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you and that I may remain alive thanks to you." Well, she is technically his sister (his half-sister) and he does thank her, but she's also his wife; Abraham surely knows that when Pharaoh wants her, it's not as a cribbage partner, and it's clear that he's doing this for his own gain and safety. This is hardly an altruistic act. Sarah herself is no model of sweet-tempered tolerance; when her maid, Hagar, who at Sarah's suggestion has become pregnant with Abraham's child, decides that her status should now change and she should no longer be treated as a slave, Sarah mistreats Hagar so badly that she runs away. Hagar returns at God's bidding, but later, after Isaac is born, Sarah sends Hagar and her son--who, of course is also Abraham's son-- into the wilderness to starve
There is also the theory that Abraham was chosen not because of any unique attributes, but because he was willing to go. God spoke--this story goes--and Abraham did not ask questions but simply said "Hineni," ("Here I am"). There is some support for this idea. After all, it is an undertaking so grueling that there probably weren't many other applicants. And Abraham and Sarah knew that God would be there to lend his help and unconditional support. But these two still seem to be unlikely volunteers. Think of where the journey takes them: They are ordered to leave their home and go to a new land; then, they must leave that land because of famine and move to Egypt, where fearsome dangers await them. They emerge with great riches and Sarah's honor unscathed, but only with a good deal of divine maneuvering. Then, in order to save Lot, Abraham must go to battle as an ally of the king of Sodom, whom he detests. No sooner does he finish with that, Abraham hears with dread the prophesy that his people will later be enslaved in Egypt. He and Sarah are childless, so Sarah urges Abraham to bed with Hagar and she has a son, Ishmael. Surely, Abraham must think that he's done his duty as far as founding a nation is concerned, and he hints at that but no! God delivers a triple whammy. He tells Abraham that he and all males must be circumcised; that he and Sarah must change their names from Abram and Sarai; and, mazel tov, he's to have another son. A brief intermission while Abraham once again tries to rescue Lot from the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This time he must negotiate with God. Then the couple become parents of Isaac, and some time later Abraham is asked to sacrifice this beloved son. Although God intervenes in time once again, the experience may be what causes Sarah's death. But Abraham journeys on, finds a wife for Isaac, remarries himself and has six more children before dying at 175.
So, while Abraham may have said, "Hineni," I think it unlikely that he did so with much enthusiasm. Besides the fact that he and Sarah are elderly and probably tired and somewhat hesitant to change, I doubt that Abraham's personality would have predisposed him to willingly seek this assignment at any time in his life. If there are some who seek greatness and others who have greatness thrust upon them, Abraham seems to be squarely in the latter category. We don't know whether Abraham welcomed conflict and change as a young man, but certainly at the point that we become acquainted with him, he seems to seek ease and pleasantness and eschew friction. After he and his family come back from Egypt, they have so much wealth in the form of cattle that there isn't room enough for his cattle and Lot's to graze, and their respective herdsmen begin to bicker, Abraham says to Lot "Let there be no strife between you and me. If you go north, I will go south, and if you go south, I will go north." Sarah is feistier, but she gets no help from Abraham. When she complains to him about Hagar's haughty ways, he isn't going to get himself in the middle: He says, "Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right." I'm fairly sure that when Abraham and Sarah discover that, at their respective ages of 100 and 90, they are about to be blessed with 2AM feedings ,the ancient equivalent of Pampers and the prospect of planning a Bar Mitzvah when they're 113 and 103, their laugh contains at least some part shock along with joy. When do they get to retire to the condo in Sun City?
So were Abraham and Sarah simply chosen at random--their names pulled out of some celestial hat? Perhaps. But I would like to suggest one other possibility. Maybe Abraham and Sarah were not chosen despite their age, ordinariness and imperfections but, at least in part, because of them. These are survivors who do the best they can with what skills they have, and one of their most important skills is their ability to stay the course. They are not dewy-eyed idealists, impetuous hotheads or single-issue zealots. They have faith in God, but don't assume that God will step in and solve their problems--though He often does. They do what they are chosen and have chosen to do even though they may not always do it graciously. When they cannot do a perfect job--and they often can't--they accept that they will do a good-enough job. They often blunder and stumble and--like the rest of us-- they do things that are thoughtless, cruel, uncaring or just plain stupid. They receive much help from God and need all of it. They wouldn't be very good sprinters, but in a marathon they might finish when others dropped out in sheer frustration.
I feel very close to Abraham and Sarah when I need to keep going and I'm exhausted and my kids are having their tenth battle in an hour; I sense them nearby when I need to be in three places at once and no matter which one I choose folks at the other two will be mad at me. I feel close to them tonight not only because I've been chanting and talking about them but because even though I've been thinking about this D'var for months, I couldn't quite get it to come out the way I wanted it and my Torah chanting still seems shaky. I don't think I'd feel comfortable even thinking about quasi-gods: A man who is as tall as 70 put together or (especially) a woman who blinds angels with her dazzling beauty. But Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors, were unabashedly human, and I find great comfort in that.
Vayigash Gen. 44:18 - 47:27
D’var Torah by Judy Gross
January 2, 1998
Vayigash is the portion in which Joseph, apparently the most powerful man in Egypt, finally reveals himself to his brothers and brings Jacob’s entire family to Egypt to save all of Israel from the famine in Canaan. To me, the most interesting aspect of this portion is its theme of control: how Judah, Joseph, Pharaoh, and finally Jacob try to control other people, events, and even God. In this portion, for the first time, Jacob realizes that he cannot control God. He also realizes that he doesn’t need to.
Let us begin, as does this portion, with Judah. Judah in previous stories has shown more that his share of human frailties, including plotting to sell Joseph into slavery and acting disgracefully to Tamar, his son’s wife. But in this story, he appears after having pledged to Jacob his own life and freedom as surety for Benjamin, his youngest brother, Rachael’s child and Jacob’s favorite since Joseph’s disappearance. When Joseph pretends that he is going to imprison Benjamin for theft, Judah realizes that Judah, in fact, has no physical power. His family is starving and at the mercy of one who is like Pharaoh ( Gen.44:18; a comment that I did not think was intended as a compliment). Judah gives us a beautiful example of the song we sang last week for Hanukkah, "Not by might and not by power". Judah comes up to Joseph ("vayigash") and, using only moral suasion, manages to disarm Joseph.
Judah doesn’t threaten Joseph, even with God’s wrath, he merely reports that losing Benjamin will deeply hurt his father, perhaps leading to the death of both Jacob and Benjamin. Judah’s speech is powerful: "Now if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with me--- since his own life is so bound up with his --- when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief." (Gen.44:30-31) He fulfills his pledge to Jacob by offering himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place on the grounds that he could not stand seeing how distraught Jacob would be if he lost Benjamin: "For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!" (Gen.44:34). And it works. Granted it works because in fact, Judah’s father was also Joseph’s father, and Joseph was an essentially moral person. It wouldn’t work against true evil, but from this portion, we see that telling someone what is right may lead to his doing right.
Judah’s rather minor role shows us what is possible. Joseph’s behavior shows us major limitations on the control by even the most powerful. Joseph has been manipulating and controlling his brothers shamefully. Judah’s speech is necessary because Joseph planted a cup in Benjamin’s bag and accused him of theft. Joseph previously had exercised his control over his brothers to deny them food unless they brought Benjamin to Egypt, which they did most unwillingly. Finally, Joseph loses control of his brothers and himself because of Judah’s words. However, in one last attempt to maintain his power over the Egyptians and to save face before them, when Joseph realizes that he is breaking down, he sends the Egyptians out of the room. He fails. He so completely loses control of himself that his cries can be heard all the way to Pharaoh’s palace.(Gen.45:1-2) His inability to control himself limits his total control.
I don’t mean to paint Joseph’s desire for power and control too strongly because Joseph always recognized some major limitations: he told his brothers that God had sent him before them to ensure their survival on earth (Gen.45:7) and "to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance" (a statement foreshadowing the Exodus and simultaneously providing a wonderful example of the human action necessary to carry out the Divine plan and fulfill the Covenant). He further says that God had made him "a father to Pharaoh", ruler throughout Egypt, and lord of Egypt. So he attributed his acquisition of power to God, not to himself or to Pharaoh. But even after their reconciliation, he still chose to try to control his brothers and father. He sent his brothers to bring Jacob, told them how to behave on the journey, what possessions to bring and what to abandon, where they would live, and what they would do for a living. His power over his brothers was somewhat limited: his brothers did not become either Joseph’s or Pharaoh’s serfs.
Joseph’s exercise of power was not limited to his brothers. By the end of the portion, all the people of Egypt came to Joseph first to buy food, then when all their money was gone, when all they had left were their dying bodies and dying land, to beg food and to trade their freedom for food. (Gen.47:18) True, when Joseph made all the people serfs to Pharaoh, he was proving that his personal power had limits: he did not directly benefit from the transactions as he did everything in Pharaoh’s name, and the Egyptian priests received their grants directly from Pharaoh without losing their freedom. This portion also foreshadows the most obvious limitation on Joseph’s control. In just a few short chapters, all of Israel will be slaves in Egypt. Joseph cannot control events after his death, nor does he truly control all of Egypt.
It is interesting at this point to examine Pharaoh’s power. In this portion, Pharaoh’s power is shown to be quite limited. He, in fact, is almost a comic figure. He extravagantly invites Joseph’s entire family to live in Egypt, but in doing so, he is a puppet: he extends an invitation that Joseph had already given, telling them to live where Joseph has already told them to live. Everyone has already begun to act on Joseph’s word, without even waiting for Pharaoh’s rubber stamp. Moreover, when the famine becomes severe, Joseph, not Pharaoh, sets Egyptian land policy. Finally, when Jacob arrives in Egypt, Jacob blesses Pharaoh (Gen.47:7) - which might seem presumptuous, except that we were told that Joseph was made father to Pharaoh, so it is appropriate that Joseph’s father act like a crotchety old grandfather when speaking to Pharaoh. "The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life....(Gen.47:9)" Indeed. This also foreshadows Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons, Jacob’s real grandsons, in the next portion.
So what of Jacob’s power? We see that Jacob exercised some power over Pharaoh. We know that he maintained power over his sons because he sent them to Egypt for food several times even though they did not want to go, and, when forced to send Benjamin with them, extracts a promise from Ruben that Ruben’s children will be hostage for Benjamin (Gen.42:37) and a promise from Judah to stand surety for Benjamin (Gen.43:7). In the next portion, Jacob controls his sons with blessings and curses and also chooses how to bless Joseph’s sons. Nevertheless, Jacob understands the limits on his power: he makes Joseph formally swear to bury him in Canaan, rather than in Egypt (something that, by the way, God had already promised would happen). Jacob understands that control ends with death.
Jacob also understands, finally, that he cannot control God. During the course of his life, Jacob had four encounters with God. In the first three, Jacob tried to control God. Only in this portion, his fourth encounter, does he do everything right.
In Jacob’s first encounter with God, Jacob was, well, Jacob. Jacob is fleeing from home and the wrath of both Esau and Isaac, both of whom he has tricked. He goes to sleep and is treated to the magnificent spectacle of angels going up and down a ladder to Heaven, with God at the top of the ladder (Gen.28:12 et seq.). God tells Jacob that Jacob will receive the blessings of the Covenant and that God will go with him on his journeys. So Jacob explains to God what God must do for Jacob in order for Jacob to worship God: give me stuff and I will worship you. "If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house -- the Lord will be my God...."(Gen.28:20)
Jacob’s second encounter is just as magnificent a story as the first: Jacob is fleeing Laban's wrath (whom he has tricked), returning to his homeland in fear of his brother Esau. Jacob was alone in the night and wrestled with God (or some aspect of God), literally trying physically to force God to bless him. It doesn’t work; one touch cripples Jacob for life. And Jacob explains it as a victory: after all, he did not die. God has changed Jacob’s name to Israel in this encounter, but generally, he is still called Jacob. Jacob’s wrestling did not change the Covenant.
Jacob’s third encounter with God, after the rape of Dinah and his sons’ massacre of the men of Shechem, when, you guessed it, Jacob is fleeing the wrath of the peoples around Shechem, is basically just a different version of Jacob’s name change, with God’s confirmation of the Covenant.(Gen.35:9) Between these encounters, Jacob continues to live his difficult life. God, in the meantime, has kept His freely granted promise to make make Jacob’s family a multitude, hence the long list in this portion of all Jacob’s children and grandchildren who go to Egypt. (Gen. 46:8-27)
On this trip to Egypt, Jacob encounters God for the fourth time, "in a vision of night."(Gen.46:2) And Jacob gets it right. God calls "Jacob, Jacob." Jacob does not bargain, does not try to physically overpower God, and doesn’t even calculate whether God gave him all the stuff he had demanded in his first encounter. Instead, he says "Hineni", "Here I am", the only correct answer in Torah to a call from God.
So why did Jacob change? He did change, that is certain. After all, directness was never one of Jacob’s attributes. The only other time Jacob had even used the word "hineni" was when he invented a dream to explain to his wives why he was leaving Laban’s household, to try to convince them that God was directing his fortunes. (Gen.31:11) But in this portion, Jacob finally learns what is important. Controlling God wasn’t it, and having stuff wasn’t it. It was, instead, Joseph’s life.
When Judah returned from Egypt to fetch Jacob, he told Jacob that Joseph was alive and a lord in Egypt. Jacob’s heart stopped from shock and joy, he cried "Enough", and then the spirit of Jacob reentered Jacob’s body. (Gen.45:26-27) The word used for "spirit" is "ruah", the same breath of God that brought life to Adam and Noah’s protection from the flood. In fact, the Zohar insists that this was the Shechinah (spirit of God) entering Jacob’s body for the first time since Joseph disappeared. (Zohar vol.1,216:6: Soncino Zohar, vol.2,p.302) I prefer to think that Jacob had been without the spirit of God even longer, ever since Jacob made the soup for Esau and began his life of trickery so long before this. This portion then is the story of Jacob demanding, and needing, less and less from God. He didn’t need the wealth for which he had cheated Esau and Laban, he didn’t need to demand a blessing or stuff from God. Without being asked or harassed, God had given Jacob the protection of the Covenant. And God had given him his son’s life: that was enough.
D'Var Torah Cynthia Barnard, October 31, 1997
For merchandising value, the best part of Torah is here: adorable images of animals traipsing into a big wooden ark, led by Noah and capped by a vivid rainbow. We can buy this cuteness packaged into wallpaper, quilts and toys.
But read the actual words of Noach - it's a shock. It's a violent, ugly story. And yet through the ugliness we can hear a challenging message, G-d directing our energies to save our world and ourselves.
The story of Noach is anything but cute. Mankind has descended from Adam and Eve to a vicious state. The world is full of "chamas" - corruption, robbery, lawlessness. The earth itself has become "nish-chatah," has suffered. It is "shacheit" - corrupted.
The evil in Noach's time was directed both against other people and against the earth itself. The rabbis tell us that rich men carefully sheltered marble statues from the freezing rain, ignoring shivering human beings in agonized need of the same protection. Midrash suggests that a person might come to the market carrying a full basket of beans and find it soon empty, as each passerby stole just one. Universal petty thievery - reflecting the loss of basic respect and lawfulness. Selfishness rules.
In the midst of this, we are told, "Noach ish tzaddik tamid haia b'dorotav" - Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. Is this praise or not? Noach was perfect in his generations -- which, we have just learned, are notable for exceptional wickedness! And, as the story progresses, Noach does behave himself ignobly.
It took 120 years for Noach to construct the ark. We may imagine him, lonely and isolated, mocked by his community. I see him as ploddingly obedient to G-d, perhaps not very imaginative. Consider Noach's failure to argue with G-d about the impending devastation. Not one word is uttered to challenge G-d's intention. Later, both Abraham and Moses will be successful in persuading God to avert destruction on behalf of a few virtuous people.
In fact, the haftarah refers to the flood as "the waters of Noach" - how was he responsible? The essence of Noach's failing was that he merely followed G-d's explicit instructions. He did not emulate the chamas, the evil, of his neighbors, but still he did not actively improve his world or fight for the good in it. Noach clung to his own family and protected them, and only them, through his obedience to G-d. Perhaps our own day echoes this, with its sometimes smug focus on the well-being of our own, while ignoring the crying needs of those who may not look, or speak, or believe as we do.
And then -- the flood. As the earth has become shacheit - corrupted, destroyed - so G-d uses the same verb to describe what will happen - "l'shacheit kol-basher asher bo ruach chaim mitachat hashamayim"... to destroy all flesh which has a breath of life under the heavens." The corruption of the earth has been so terrible that there is no remedy. It can only be swept away along with all other life.
Noach and his family cared for the animals in the ark for one year and ten days. They must have felt thoroughly abandoned. Midrash tells us that there was never adequate sleep for the eight people on the Ark. It was a year of pure devotion to thousands of creatures - four men and four unnamed women feeding, cleaning, smelling, hearing animals of every description. Of all of G-d's attributes, the one we can most readily emulate, and which brings us closest to G-d, is unstinting kindness and giving. Indeed, some of the rabbis claim that this single redeeming merit of kindness to the animals led G-d to remember Noach's family and the animals, and to cause the flood to ebb.
G-d's symbol of the new covenant which is now sealed with humanity is the rainbow. We are told by the rabbis that the rainbow had always existed, since Creation; only now G-d gives it new significance, teaches Noach and his descendents to see it as a symbol of this relationship. Perhaps the meaning here is that we must renew our appreciation of the irreplaceable beauty of Creation. God's covenant need not be sealed by a new symbol - as Proust reminds us, the real journey of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing the extraordinary ones we already have with new eyes. Nature's magnificence should be evidence enough of G-d's covenant, if we can only see it.
The balance of nature comes back into focus after the flood's destruction, but it has changed. There is a new mutual understanding between G-d and man, an acceptance that humans have an innate capacity for chamas, for evil, but that it must be controlled and managed. G-d's bargain is that Noach and his descendants shall "be fertile and multiply" and shall rule humanely over the animal kingdom, but only on condition that a rule of law and value for human life shall also prevail. It is this condition that Noach is about to violate.
His behavior on returning to everyday life was ugly. He still had no concept of the innate value, the potential for redemption, in every human life. His first act was profane: he planted a vineyard and made himself drunk. He "uncovered himself" in his tent, and his son Ham "saw his father's nakedness" and told his brothers. The two other sons managed to cover their father's nakedness without viewing his humiliation directly and Noach responds with a curse upon Ham's son Canaan, raging that he shall be "a slave of slaves" to his brothers.
We are left, in our final glimpse of Noach, with a sad portrait of a man who was obedient, whose righteousness saved G-d's creation, and who was able to give care to animals, when locked in a floating zoo with them; but he never did understand the value of a human being. He did not argue with G-d when told that all humanity was about to die; and he closed his life with an ugly act of drunken folly and savage revenge on an innocent grandchild.
Noach came to maturity in a time of terrible evil and lawlessness. He was mocked and jeered by his society, and then subjected to an unimaginable experience of storm, destruction, death, and a year of imprisonment in a floating world of animals. In Noach, we see that those who are brutalized and traumatized may well brutalize and traumatize in their turn, and that we - like Noach's sons Shem and Yapheth, who covered their father without witnessing his nakedness - must shelter our fellow creatures from the humiliation of their own frailties.
The message of this parasha comes to its full conclusion in its final section - one which may seem incongruent at first.
We might hope that Noach's descendents would have learned from Noach's abuse of the earth and its fruits, his drunkenness and its ugly aftermath, would live their lives in the balance of nature which G-d restored after the flood. Instead, they build a tower of Babel, an edifice of worship of technology and civilization. G-d's covenant, symbolized by the rainbow, is forgotten; mankind now seeks to compete with G-d, to build a tower reaching past the rainbow and into the heavens.
What is particularly important about this is G-d's response. In response to mankind's pillage of the earth and violence inflicted upon each other, G-d destroys humanity. But when men challenge G-d, building their tower into the heavens, G-d merely interferes with the building project by confusing their languages, splintering them into seventy nations. I infer from this that G-d is enraged by our disregard for each other and for nature - so enraged (to use a human emotion to characterize G-d) as to invoke that same violence, that chamas, to destroy the offenders. But if mankind merely threatens G-d, we may almost say that G-d "can take it," merely gestures perhaps more in sorrow than in anger and fractures mankind's communications and civilization to prevent such an intrusion where humans do not belong. G-d's own sanctity is not threatened by humanity's chutzpah.
In the haftarah, Isaiah quotes G-d speaking to Israel in Babylonian exile, "In slight anger, for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with kindness everlasting, I will take you back in love, as I swore that the waters of Noach nevermore would flood the earth." On reading Noach, let us take away that single profound thought: humanity's redemption will be in God's "kindness everlasting," if we can find that kindness in ourselves for our fellow creatures.
This is such a powerful statement as we reflect on our responsibilities to our world. We must focus our energies, our resources, on mankind's relationship with all of humanity and all of nature. Our paramount responsibility is to repair, to nurture our world. To genuinely see our rainbows, to understand their significance. To learn unstinting kindness, to give of ourselves to those who are like us, and perhaps even more to those who are not - to seek out and find, and to champion the righteous among us. To generously understand that those who are brutalized victims may tend to brutalize in their turn, and must be generously aided.
G-d can handle challenges to G-d's authority, and let us leave that task to G-d.
G-d cannot protect the fragile creation of Bereishit unless we participate vigorously in its defense.
Let us close with the blessing we are taught to utter upon seeing a rainbow, "Baruch atah adonai, elohenu melech ha-olam, zocher ha'vrit v'ne-eman bi-vitro vkayom b'ma'amaro." Blessed is our G-d who remembers the covenant and faithfully keeps G-d's promise.
May we keep ours as well.