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When Jacob is told “your brother Esau is coming with 400 men,” he expects the worst. He takes every precaution possible, dividing his camp, putting Rachel and Joseph in the safest place, behind Leah and her children. Therefore, if battle is joined, perhaps half will flee and survive. At the same time, perhaps Esau can be appeased or “bought off”; so Jacob sends messengers with choice gifts and careful words of flattery. “Thus are you to say to my Lord Esau: ‘I dwelt with Esau…’” Rashi famously looks at the word garti, “I dwelled” and explains that the numerical value of this word is 613—equal to all the mitzvot of Torah. Rashi declares that “Jacob kept all the 613 commandments even though he lived in the home of the wicked Laban.”

This is but one example of a frequent Rabbinic construct: assuming that biblical figures behaved as though they were Rabbinic Jews living in 4th century Palestine or Babylonia. We are told that Shem, Noah’s son, opened a yeshiva and his descendant Ever maintained it. This yeshiva is thought to be a “Torah mi Sinai” tradition without any grounding in the text. It assumes that the “mild mannered tent dwelling” Jacob would prefer learning to hunting outdoors like Esau. A midrash also tells us that Isaac attended the same yeshiva, indeed he fled straight there from the scene of the Akeda. This observation can be extended to other genres of expression. Renaissance paintings depicted Biblical figures garbed in contemporary (Renaissance) clothing being but one example. The scholarly explanation is that these artists and authors were not concerned with historicity—their work had other functions.

That is also true of all the midrashim that depict our ancestors studying in yeshivot, learning halacha before the Torah was given, or kings learning Torah with their prophetic advisors. Our Sages wished to underscore the importance of study, and what better way to do it then by turning our history into a giant “commercial” for learning Torah by associating the “stars” of Judaism with Talmud Torah. Long before storied athletes graced Wheaties boxes, or famed cantors like Yossele Rosenblatt endorsed various kosher products, famous Biblical heroes and heroines endorsed the importance of learning Torah and asking the Rabbi for guidance.

We must recognize that the Talmudic Sages used these midrashim to create a narrative that empowered and justified their authority as religious arbiters, But to say that this was their sole purpose would be cynical. “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam”—“Torah study is equal to all the other mitzvot combined,” declared our Sages, and they lived it. And with this thought we come full circle to Rashi’s comment on Jacob. Rashi declares that the true test of a Jew was to remain a Jew when faced with the powers of assimilation, and Yaakov passed this test. If we are to remain Jews, we need Talmud Torah in our lives. What we learn together on Shabbat is a beginning—if you come to our Voices of Torah class. But more time, 10 minutes a day at least, should be found for looking in a Torah, reading a commentary, or contemplating a Jewish philosopher’s opinions. Our job is harder than Yaakov’s. He only temporarily lived among the temptations of idol worship (the root of the word “garti” means to live temporarily), we live in a highly non-religious society with no real separation between Jews and non-Jews. We have a dual identity to engage, but only one faith to be loyal to. Torah study will help us find our way through a road far harder to navigate than our ancestors’.

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A tired Jacob finally reaches the city of Haran after an arduous journey fleeing from his brother Esau. He proceeds to the well, the centre of town life, only to find it sealed by an enormous rock that covered it, probably to minimize evaporation in the hot climate. The local shepherds told him that, when dusk came, they would wait for a sufficient number of their fellow herders to gather and, even then, the rock was so heavy that they could only “roll the stone from the mouth of the well.” But when Jacob saw his cousin Rachel approaching with her flock, he singlehandedly lifted the rock from its place and proceeded to assist Rachel in watering her sheep.

This textual anomaly caught the eye of the midrashists who observed that for Jacob “the stone looked no larger than a pebble.” They derived this deep psychological insight from the text itself. When Jacob asked the shepherds: “why are you all gathering here? It is much too early to water the flocks,” they replied that even though quite a number had already gathered, “Lo nuchal” – “we are unable,” they explained, to do anything at all to the rock. But Jacob looked and where these powerful men were paralyzed by inability, the “mild mannered” “mommy’s boy” Jacob suddenly found a hidden ability—for him the “rock” was but a “pebble.” The rest was easy, and proved to be a key moment in Jewish history and continuity.

Rabbi Norman Lamm once observed that too many of us get stuck on the road of life because we fail to truly see our strengths—we see only inadequacies. We are trapped by “lo nuchal”—we cannot. Sometimes, like Jacob, all we need is a reconfiguration of our point of view. Often this comes through the assistance of friends, family, or trusted advisors. At times, as in our parasha, even casual acquaintances on the road of life provide key insights into ourselves. Perhaps this is the deeper meaning of the verse which describes how Jacob lifted the rock from the well. The beginning of the verse seems strange, it states: “And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well.” Why the lengthy and apparently unrelated discourse on exactly who Jacob saw before he lifted the rock? To teach us that family can trigger the psychological changes necessary for a new self-awareness and self-esteem.

It is no accident that this verse mentions both Laban and Rachel as the keys to Jacob’s psychology. Rachel would sustain Jacob through much difficulty, though she died prematurely and her influence lived on, perhaps overly magnified on that account, through her sons Joseph and Benjamin. Her father Laban would cause two decades of grief to his nephew—indeed the Haggada presents him as more wicked than Pharaoh. Family has the power to influence us for bad or good. They can inspire us to see pebbles or rocks, mountains or molehills.

And that is why in the end, sustaining a positive self-image depends on us. We can thank or blame our families—but ultimately we decide what we see in life—a rock or a pebble, obstacles everywhere, or just temporary detours. That is why the verse begins “When Jacob SAW….,” to stress that, despite the opposite visions of himself offered by Laban and Rachel, Jacob alone was responsible for seeing, for envisioning, and choosing the course of his life. May the peace of the Sabbath give us time to pause long enough to find ourselves amidst the chatter, clatter, and shrillness of the world. May we seek and find the “still small voice” that guides us on our unique path and helps us to see the rainbows rather than the rain.

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One of the most important skills needed to continually grow as an Intelligent Jew is to revisit, reinterpret, and revise our behaviours and understandings of Jewish texts and practices as we grow in age, intellect, and experience. We cannot allow ourselves to leave our understanding of Judaism at the intellectual level it was when we last participated in formal Jewish education.

When we return to the Bible stories of the Book of Genesis and study them as adults we are struck by their literary power and the various methodologies employed by the writer to impart their message—ways that are very different from the narrative tradition to which we are accustomed.

This week’s parasha provides a most notable example. Rebecca, enduring a difficult pregnancy, seeks out a Divine answer as to why she is suffering so much. The answer she receives is well known: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger [ve-rav ya’avod tsa’ir].” (Bereishit 25: 23). Rebecca takes this as a given—as a prophecy—and therefore arranges, as we have learned in great detail, for Jacob to impersonate his brother and steal his birthright. Thus far the “Hebrew School version” which leaves us with many questions as to duplicity, deception, and the role of prophecy, to mention just a few.

But for Intelligent Jews, who bring their adult intellects to the study of text, there is much more here. As Rabbi Sacks observes, the narrative has a surprise for us. For when Esau receives his blessing we read: “You will live by your sword. And you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck. (Bereishit 27: 40). Indeed, slightly more than two decades later, Jacob will meet Esau again and he will call himself Esau’s “servant”! Contrary to the prophecy, the brothers’ roles have reversed! What has happened? Does G-d not know the future?

Rabbi Sacks offers a profound explanation: “We have here an example of one of the most remarkable of all the Torah’s narrative devices – the power of the future to transform our understanding of the past. This is the essence of Midrash. New situations retrospectively disclose new meanings in the text. The present is never fully determined by the present. Sometimes it is only later that we understand now.” If we rely only on the English translation that we learned in our youthful Jewish education, we cannot possibly understand Rabbi Sack’s insight. “The older shall serve the younger” is a factual statement in its English translation. But the Hebrew is far less clear. The Hebrew words for “older” (rav) and “younger” (tza’ir) translate as “greater” and “younger”, far from being direct opposites, and this is only one of the ambiguities presented by the original language.

We are forced to notice these ambiguities, argues Sacks, only because the original prophecy of “the older shall serve the younger” does not emerge as predictably as we had first assumed. And this, he argues, is the central message of Bereishit: “that the future is never as straightforward as we are led to believe.” Not a message we could have learned in Hebrew school, but one which we as adults certainly understand. Indeed we need a Torah that informs us that this is how life works, that synchs with our understanding of the present, and a Torah that affirms our mature understanding of how the world works. That is why we must return to the Torah with fresh eyes and continue learning as adults. Being satisfied with what we learned in Hebrew school is dangerous spiritually; “Intellectual nostalgia” sounds like the disease it is—the true meaning of the past is revealed by the future, and time marches ever on, revealing more daily to those who care to learn.

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End of life issues surround the aging Abraham in this week’s Torah reading. First, he has to struggle to keep his emotions under control as he bargains with the local inhabitants just to purchase a burial plot for Sarah. The conversations must have been made doubly bitter, points out Jonathan Sacks, because Abraham had been promised no less than five times that the land would be his and his descendants forever. Yet, here he stands, bitterly struggling with men who call him “a prince of G-d in our midst,” but insist on charging an outrageous sum—400 silver shekels—“which is nothing between you and us”—for a single site.

It must also have been hard for Abraham to see that, as he aged, his son Isaac still was unmarried. How would the Divine promise of “your descendants shall be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand by the sea” be fulfilled? It seemed that Abraham would have to take matters into his own hands. And he did. He dispatched a trusted servant to his ancestral homeland to seek a woman who would return to Canaan with Isaac, where they might be able to build a second Jewish home. But it would take a miracle for the girl to be identified, and the servant would have to patiently endure her parents’ doing all they could to stall her departure. Once again, the Divine promise would take time to fulfill. Abraham was very old when he was finally assured of its fulfillment.

Not so Moses. Facing an angry G-d after the Israelites had worshipped the Golden Calf, he seemed ready to quit. “Step away from me” came the Divine Voice, “and in an incident I shall destroy the Israelites and make you into a great nation.” A gemara in Sanhedrin explains why Moses, though good enough to be the father of a new nation, was told to “step back” and not try to intercede. “Woe for the generations that came before you,” declared G-d to Moses, “I told Abraham to leave his home and follow me to a land he knew nothing of and he came. Isaac lay down on an altar as a sacrifice to serve me. Jacob endured exile from his home. And what of you Moses? You were given miracles to perform in Egypt and the Sea, and now you stand silently?” It was only then that Moses said “this matter depends on me, and he interceded.”

So if the faith of Moses, the greatest of all the prophets, pales in comparison with that of Abraham, what can we say about the state of Judaism today? This week I happened to bring home a chareidi (ultra-Orthodox) publication. It had a small section called “hasgahcha pratit”—everyday examples of G-d’s presence at work among us. And what are these examples? One woman wrote when both her favourite lipstick colours—which were usually unavailable—were in stock at the drug store, then she knew that Hashem was ‘there for her”. Perhaps this person needs a vending machine to worship—certainly not the G-d of our ancestors.

Yet, even in this, there is a lesson. Faith is not a trivial thing, but it can be easily trivialized. Far better to seek deeply and think about what G-d is and how G-d might affect our lives than to associate the Infinite One with the local cosmetics counter. Surely Intelligent Judaism demands more. Let us keep searching and believing—let us be like Abraham.

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Our parasha’s opening narrative about 3 angels, who appear human, coming to visit Abraham, is familiar to many. Rashi famously observes that each angel came to do a specific task—one to tell Abraham that Sarah was pregnant, one to visit him because he was still in pain from his brit milah, and one who was to continue on to Sodom to ensure that Abraham’s cousin Lot was able to escape the evil city before its destruction.

Interesting that divine beings such as angels have such limitations. One would expect angels to be multitaskers. But they are not. They are merely divinely created robots possessing no independent will. A well known midrash highlights this. In it, the angels complain to G-d and ask why Moses is allowed to take the Torah from Heaven and give it to lowly human beings. They argue that this holy document, filled with secrets and deep meanings, is too holy for humans. Moses is ordered by G-d to answer the angels’ argument. He simply points out that since they are perfect and don’t murder—they don’t need the commandment not to murder, and since they never feel tired, Shabbat is meaningless to them. “Case closed” declares G-d, and Moses happily departs with his prize down the slopes of Sinai.

Humans are no better at multitasking. Drivers talk on cell phones and cause accidents. People book multiple outings and rush from a simcha to shopping to family affairs, leaving tables empty before dessert or before Birkat HaMazon. People just pack their schedules so tight that they attend events without time to actually talk to each other. The price we pay for this in terms of sick days, or just feeling like “we never have time to really do what is important” is burdensome.

But the most interesting proof of the value of avoiding multitasking comes from later in this narrative. Immediately after the angels depart, we are presented with the extraordinary scene of G-d talking aloud: “shall I hide from Abraham what I intend to do [about Sodom]” wonders G-d. And then G-d reveals to Abraham that the cities merit destruction—which in turn triggers the famous negotiations between Abraham and the Divine over the minimum number of righteous whose presence in the city would save even the wicked. But, and this is the point, the end of the conversation is as striking as the beginning: “and G-d took leave of Abraham”—to which Rashi notes—from this we learn that saying goodbye properly is mandated.

This entire story is about politeness between the Divine and the Human. It is about the Divine who finds time to define a clear beginning, middle, and end to a conversation and a visit. That this narrative occurs immediately after one in which angels multitask is certainly striking. We seek to imitate the Divine, not the robots of the Divine, no matter how immortal. Can we do less to our friends and ourselves? So find the time to say hello to a friend, sit down and really talk in ‘real time” as G-d did, and then say goodbye and take your leave. The Torah wasn’t given to multitaskers.




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