The Bond of Brotherliness

Why does Joseph suddenly wake up to his familial ties and reveal himself as the long-lost son and brother? Apparently, he was inspired by Judah’s stirring speech that opens our Torah reading. How did Judah strike such a responsive chord in a Joseph, whose heart had previously been so impervious to filial and sibling sensitivity?

I believe the crucial phase is, “because your servant guaranteed my father that I would serve as a surety for the youth.” Judah informs Joseph that he is an arev, a co-signer, a stand-in for Benjamin. This concept is quite radical for these warring siblings and resonates in subsequent Jewish legal and ethical literature in the axiom that “all Israel are co-signers (or sureties) for each other.”

Joseph was born into a family of jealousy and hatred.

The six sons of Leah, the “hated” wife who had been forced upon Jacob under false pretenses, refused to recognize the beloved wife Rachel’s son as a legitimate brother; hence, the  17-year-old Joseph had no recourse but to find his companionship with the younger brothers and compensated by “shepherding” his siblings, the sons of Leah, acting the big shot, and reporting all their foibles to his adoring father.

Joseph always refers to his siblings as his brothers, but they never refer to him as “brother”: “And he [Joseph] said, I am seeking my brothers … and Joseph went after his brothers … And they saw him from afar. The men said, each one to his brother, behold, that master of dreams is coming, let us kill him and throw him in one of the pits and say that an evil animal devoured him.”

The young Joseph was desperately seeking a brotherly relationship with his siblings ñ but he was constantly rebuffed. When he tried to overcome their rejection of him by recounting his (perhaps compensatory) dreams of grandeur, it only caused them to hate him even more.

Even Reuben, who attempts to rescue Joseph, never calls him “brother,” only referring to “him” as a pronoun. It is only Judah who refers to him as a brother, but since he is desirous of making a profit by selling him as a slave, the use of the term may be ironic: “What profit have we in killing our brother? Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, for he is our brother, our flesh.”

As the story progresses, the lack of brotherliness toward the sons of Rachel is emphasized even more: “And the 10 brothers of Joseph [they felt toward each other as brothers] went down to Egypt to purchase grain, but Jacob did not send Benjamin, brother of Joseph” (but not the brother of the other 10).

And when the sons of Jacob stand before the Grand Vizier, the Bible stresses the inequality in their relationship with a ringing declaration, pregnant with a double meaning, “Joseph recognized his brothers [their identity as well as a sibling relationship to them], but they did not recognize him.”

The Hebrew word ach, “brother,” means to be tied together, the verb achot meaning to sew or to stitch, even, if you will, to patch up. It derives from a sense of unity, oneness which comes from the understanding of having emanated from one father.

Since the source of their unity is their common father; they should not want to cause pain to each other and certainly not to their father. Apparently, the hatred of the 10 brothers for Joseph even overwhelmed their filial concern for their father’s welfare — and so they seemingly had no difficulty in telling Jacob that his beloved Joseph had been torn apart by a wild animal! When Judah declares to their father, Jacob, that he will stand as surety for Benjamin, he is expressing his newfound recognition that this youngest son of Rachel is truly an ach, a brother, an inextricable part of him, Judah, even though he was born of a different mother. When he tells the Grand Vizier that he is willing to be a slave instead of Benjamin — so that this son of Rachel may be restored to his loving father in order to save Jacob further pain — he is demonstrating the bond of ultimate unity between siblings, and between them and their father. This is brotherliness and unity that creates an indissoluble bond. It is at this point of Judah’s self-sacrifice for Rachel’s youngest son that Joseph recognizes his brothers’ repentance and is ready to forgive and reunite with them.

The prophet Ezekiel provides the ultimate vision of a united Israel when he is told by God to take one stick and write upon it, “For Judah and the children of Israel his friends,” and to take another stick and write upon it, “For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and the entire house of Israel his friend,” and to join both sticks so that they are united in his hand. This is the Jewish goal, learned from Judah, when every Israelite sees themselves as a co-signer for every other Israelite for the greater glory of our common Father in heaven.

But by My Spirit

112114_jewishview-Rabbi-WeinrebIt is a common scene in the United States at this time of year. The shopping malls, television commercials and all public
venues are transformed visually. As Dec. 25 approaches, we see the evidence that we do indeed live in a predominantly Christian country. Images of Santa Claus and his reindeer, evergreen trees with dazzling decorations, crucifixes illuminated by bright lights and depictions of the Nativity are everywhere and are inescapable. The sounds of the songs of the season fill the air.

True, in recent times and especially in cities where Jewish people are a significant presence, consideration is given to Chanukah. Symbols of our holiday and its music are also in evidence. We are thankful for that.

It is also true that many of our Christian friends, including the gentleman I am about to introduce to you, find all this public fanfare objectionable. They think of it as garish, commercially motivated and inconsistent with the spiritual message of their faith.

But the reaction of many to this situation is similar to the one that my gentile friend Paul, with whom I worked closely during the years I was employed by the public school system, expressed to me some time ago. It was on a day in the middle of December and we were walking around one of the malls in suburban Washington, D.C. He remarked, “Don’t you and other Jews feel a bit outnumbered and overwhelmed at this time of year? It seems to me that your Chanukah candles make little impression in contrast to the lights on our trees and the jingle of our bells.”

I told him that I appreciated his candor and that he gave me cause for reflection.

At the time, I did not think that it would be tactful for me to tell him the truth — namely, that I had long ago reflected upon this phenomenon. And I had long ago concluded that the relatively modest manner in which Judaism celebrates Chanukah is nothing less than the essence of our religion.

This week is Shabbat Chanukah and the weekly portion is Miketz, which we supplement with verses from the Book of Numbers that relate to the chanukah or “inauguration” of the Tabernacle. But for me, the highlight of the scriptural readings
for this Shabbat has always been the words of the prophet Zechariah, which constitute the haftarah this week.

Zechariah was a man who saw many mysterious visions. He would typically ask either the angel to whom he had access, or he would inquire of the Almighty Himself, to tell him what these visions meant. And so we find, near the end of the passage we read this week, the following vision: “I see a lamp stand full of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps are seven in number; each has seven pipes above it, and by it are two olive trees.”

Characteristically, Zechariah asks the angel who talked with him, “What do these things mean, my lord?” The angel, like a good psychotherapist, asks him what he thinks the dream means. But the prophet confesses that he has no clue.

The angel finally responds, “This is the word of the Lord: ‘Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.’”

This is the lesson of Chanukah. The mighty are subdued by the weak, and the many by the few. As a public demonstration of our holiday and its miracle, we eschew lavish displays and extravagant celebrations. Instead, we kindle humble chanukiyot in the windows of our homes.

It is true that the mitzvah requires pirsum hanes, a public ceremony, and that the candles be lit for all passersby to behold. To that extent, our celebration is not totally modest and discrete.

However, as the Talmud tells us, when the outside world is especially hostile, we are permitted to take the menorah “and place it on our table indoors, and that is sufficient.” For many centuries, Jews did just that, so that their celebrations of Chanukah were painfully private.

But even today, when most of us can practice our religion publicly, a few modest candles suffice. We wish to make the point, to ourselves if not for the rest of the world, that “a little light can drive away much darkness.”

We are content to let other religions celebrate their holidays as they wish; colorfully, dramatically and publicly. We understand the power of the ubiquitous symbols and of the songs loudly sung. But for ourselves, we prefer the softer sounds of the spirit and the quiet environment of our own homes. The mitzvah is ish u’beito, every man and his house, each person with his family.

The lesson of the power of the single little candle is especially important in this day and age. We are bombarded by the images and sounds of cyberspace, and their message is often pernicious and malicious. The negative effects of most of what we hear and see on the Internet and via other media are typically devastating to our hearts and souls, if not to our minds.

How do we counteract the immense influence of such overwhelming forces? We can only do so if each of us is committed to use the power of modern technology to assert tolerance, kindness, morality and ethical behavior. Our voices may be soft, but they will be heard. The positive images that we present may be dim, but they will be seen.

The year after my encounter with my gentile friend, we met again and wandered through the same shopping mall in the middle of December. This time I decided to put my inhibitions aside. I openly shared my reflections about the discrepancy between the commercially motivated displays of the symbols of his faith and the softer, smaller and gentler displays of our tradition’s symbols. He heard me, although I cannot say that he fully agreed with me.

He did agree with me about one thing, though: “A little light can dispel much darkness.”

Happy Chanukah, the Festival of Lights.

Clothes Make the Story

To Paraphrase Mark Twain, “Clothes make the [story].” Throughout the course of this week’s Torah portion, references to clothing accentuate and propel the unfolding drama.

As the parshah opens, the tension between Joseph and his brothers reaches its boiling point. They conspire to kill him out of jealousy, for he is their father’s favorite son, but Reuben convinces them not to go that far. “So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colors that he had on; then they took him and threw him into a pit.”

It is darkly poetic that the brothers’ first act of violence against Joseph attacks his clothing, the special coat given him by Jacob as a sign of paternal favoritism. With Joseph out of the picture, the coat becomes the brothers’ vehicle for revenge against Jacob too. They stain it with goat blood and show it to Jacob as false evidence that Joseph has been killed. “Do you recognize it?” they ask Jacob, rhetorically and cruelly. The sight of the special coat, now torn and bloodied, breaks Jacob’s heart.

After Joseph’s capture and sale into Egyptian slavery, an episode about Judah and Tamar interrupts the narrative. Judah has three sons with his Canaanite wife, Shua: Er, Onan and Shelah. Tamar marries Er, who dies; Judah sends his next son, Onan, to perform his brotherly duty by marrying Tamar in order that he might sire an heir for Er. Onan famously refuses and dies. Judah, fearing the death of his third and final son, dodges the responsibility of having Shelah marry Tamar by sending her to her father’s house to wait “until my son Shelah grows up.” Tamar waits, and even after Shelah reaches marriageable age, Judah balks.

So Tamar takes her fate in her own hands, and here’s where the action and the clothing get interesting. Having heard that Judah was traveling nearby, Tamar “discarded her widow’s garb, covered herself up with a veil, wrapped herself up and stationed herself” as a prostitute where Judah would run into her. Judah approaches and propositions her, and Tamar
demands a pledge from him to guarantee payment for their transaction — “Your signet seal, your cord and the staff in your hand.”

The medieval commentators disagree on what these items are, exactly. Rashi says that the second item is not a “cord,” but the garment with which Judah covered himself. But Ramban disagrees: “It’s not plausible that he would give [her] his clothes and walk away from her naked!” And so we come full circle back to where we started with Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little to no influence on society.”

Clothed or not, Judah ends up playing the fool. After their encounter, Tamar immediately changes out of her veil and puts her widow’s garb back on. Judah can’t find the “prostitute” to pay her or get back his items in pledge. He decides to let her keep them, “lest we become a laughingstock!” Three months later, Judah finds out that Tamar is pregnant illegitimately, so he prepares to punish her. But this plays right into her hand, and she says to Judah: “The man to whom these belong made me pregnant. Acknowledge whose signet seal, cords and staff these are!”

The tables have turned on Judah. A chapter earlier, the sons of Jacob — including Judah — presented Joseph’s bloodied coat to their father with the words haker na, “Do you recognize [this]?” Now Tamar uses clothing and the very same words against Judah to expose his hypocrisy, haker na, “Do you recognize [these]?” Radak, another medieval commentator, sums it up beautifully. Citing a midrash, he says: “The Torah toys with humanity: It said to Judah, ‘You said to your father, haker na. By your life, Tamar says to you, haker na.’” In other words, what goes around, comes around.

After the Judah and Tamar interlude, the Torah returns to Joseph’s fate. Potiphar, a prominent Egyptian, buys Joseph from the Ishmaelite traders and appoints him as head slave of the household. Things are going well until Potiphar’s wife takes a liking to her handsome servant, Joseph. He rejects her advances, repeatedly. But one day, when Joseph and Potiphar’s wife are alone in the house, she “took hold of him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me!’ He left his garment in her hand, fled and ran outside.” The clothing underscores the action: Potiphar’s wife is the aggressor, grabbing Joseph’s garment and holding onto it after he flees from her clutches.

When Potiphar’s wife explains to her servants and then to her husband why she has Joseph’s clothing, she lies. Instead of saying what the Torah just told us — that she grabbed his clothing b’yadah, “in her hand” — she substitutes the word etzli, “near me”: “When I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment near me and fled.” With that verbal sleight of hand, Potiphar’s wife flips the story from a tale of her aggression against Joseph to an accusation of assault by Joseph. The Torah uses the device of Joseph’s clothing to propel the drama, just as it did in the episode of his brothers’ betrayal at the beginning of the parshah.

Looking ahead to the next Torah portion, we witness Joseph’s ascent to power in Egypt. The incident with Potiphar’s wife got him thrown in the dungeon, and his ability to interpret dreams became his ticket out. When Pharaoh learns that Joseph might be able to interpret his troubling dreams, he “sent to summon Joseph; they hurried him from the pit: He shaved, changed his clothing and came to Pharaoh.” This moment creates a literary bookend to Joseph’s abuse by his brothers. Whereas they stripped him of his good clothing and threw him into a pit, Pharaoh now restores Joseph’s clothing and removes him from a pit. The reversal of fortune and clothing sets Joseph up to fulfill his youthful dream of ruling over his brothers and father while they bow down to him.

Throughout these episodes, articles of clothing highlight and drive the unfolding drama. A sophisticated and artful literary hand was at work in these stories, dramatizing the themes of betrayal, hypocrisy, reversal of fortune and poetic justice that make Genesis such a compelling text.

Our Jewish Birthright

The biblical kashrut laws for Jews have always been a powerful tool in keeping us a “nation set apart.”

We left Jacob last week leaving Laban and Laban-land behind, heaven-bent on returning to the land of Abraham and to the house of Isaac. Jacob understands that his inner self has been overtaken by the deceitful and aggressive hands of Esau, that he must return to his ancestral home in order to recapture the Abrahamic birthright.

But what exactly are the building blocks of this birthright? Is it possible that Esau is now even more deserving, or at least as deserving, of it as is Jacob? What is the real content — and significance — of our Jewish birthright? The very first prerequisite for the carrier of the birthright is a very strong Hebrew identity, a powerful familial connection that contributes — and defines — the link to a specific and unique heritage and ancestry.

Abraham established his commitment to the Hebrew identity when he insisted upon purchasing a separate gravesite for his wife, Sarah, when he was willing to spend a small fortune in establishing a Hebrew cemetery beyond the various sites of the Hittites. He defines himself as an alien resident, sees himself as living among the Hittites but certainly not as being existentially a Hittite and therefore refuses an “of right” burial for Sarah in any Hittite plot of land.

Esau certainly is biblically described as having a strong sense of familial identity. He demonstrates strong feelings of filial respect and devotion; the Bible even records that Isaac loved Esau because he made certain to provide his father with the venison he dearly loved. He even has strong sibling ties to his brother, despite Jacob’s underhanded deception surrounding the blessings. In the Torah portion this week, the Bible tells us how Esau first seemed to have set up a greeting brigade of 400 potential warriors to “welcome” the return of the prodigal brother; but once Esau actually sees his younger brother and his family, his heart apparently melts with brotherly love: “Esau ran to meet him; he hugged him, fell upon his neck and kissed him.”

Esau even wishes for the two of them to travel together and to settle down together — “Let us travel together and move on; I will go alongside of you.” It is Jacob who politely refuses, saying, “You know that my children are weak and I have responsibility for the nursing sheep and cattle. Please go ahead of me. I shall eventually come to you in Seir.”

Yes, Esau has strong familial identity. However, Abraham had two other crucial characteristics that Esau lacks: continuity and destiny. Continuity is most meaningfully expressed in marrying a suitable mate — from our modern perspective, taking a Jewish spouse (so that the children will remain Jewish) and from the biblical perspective, not marrying an immoral Canaanite. Esau takes Hittite wives.

Perhaps he comforted himself with the fact that his first wife had a Jewish name (Judith) and the second had a name that means sweet-smelling perfume. Esau’s mentality is apparently as superficial as the name “Edom” he acquired from his exterior red complexion as well as the red colors of the lentil soup he exchanged for his birthright and the venison he gave his father. Moreover, when he realizes how upset his parents are with his marital choice, he still doesn’t look to his mother’s family in Aram Naharayim for a mate but rather chooses a daughter of Ishmael, the “wild ass of a man whose hand is over everything.” And he takes this wife not instead of but in addition to his Hittite wives.

Another test for continuity is a unique daily lifestyle, the ability to delay gratification and act with discipline, especially in the sexual and gustatory realms. The biblical kashrut laws for Jews have always been a powerful tool in keeping us a “nation set apart” that didn’t fall prey to assimilation. Esau sells his birthright for a portion of lentil soup — a thick, juicy filet mignon steak in our contemporary language. He even expresses his desire to have the broth “poured into his mouth” as one would feed a camel. To have one’s eyes on a historic mission, to realize the goal of having “all the families of the earth blessed by us” through our vision of a God of compassionate justice, morality and peace requires a lifestyle of commitment to an ideal and delayed gratification that is foreign to — and even impossible for — the character displayed by Esau. When Jacob tells Esau that he will meet up with him in Seir, our Midrash connects this rapprochement to the messianic period when “the saviors will go up to Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Esau.”

Jacob then continues to travel to Succoth, which implies the tabernacle and the Holy Temple, the place in Jerusalem from where our message to the world will eventually emanate. But before Jacob can affirm his covenantal continuity and begin to achieve his destiny, he must first disgorge the grasping hands of Esau that have overtaken his personality. After a mysteriously eerie nocturnal struggle with an anonymous assailant, he now proudly stands as Israel, the righteous representative of God and the fitting recipient of the Abrahamic birthright.

Opening the Well of Interpretation

In Jewish tradition, wells give life by providing not only water, but also a meeting place for our ancestors to find their mates. In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob meets his beloved Rachel at a well. Emboldened perhaps by love at first sight, he rolls away the heavy stone covering the mouth of the well to water Rachel’s flock.

Creative interpretations of this encounter at the well abound. Perhaps it is self-evident that a well would serve as such a rich metaphor, so ripe for midrashic readings. Wells are characterized by depth; their contents give life. The well in our scene requires an act of strength to access its life-giving waters; it does not simply flow of its own accord.

The rabbis of the Midrash Rabbah go on at great length about Jacob rolling the stone off the well, with three flocks of sheep nearby. Rabbi Hama ben Hanina alone offers six ways to understand the scene.

First, he compares this well to the well in the wilderness during the time of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, the three prophets who are symbolized by the three flocks of sheep. This miraculous well traveled with the Israelites. The leaders opened it to water their tribes and families, and they put the stone back during their journeys.

It is worth noting that Rabbi Hanina retrojects the desert wandering into the Jacob story. This anachronism characterizes the rabbinic concept of time, which is not linear but cyclical. Rashi illustrates this idea in explaining why the Torah uses verbs in the past tense while the ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah known as the Targum puts these verbs in the present: “Every present tense is changed to a word in future or past tense because every affair of the present always already happened and will happen again.” Rashi gives us a terse encapsulation of the rabbinic view of history: Everything that happens refigures the past and prefigures the future. This fractal concept of time sets the stage for the abundance of midrashic interpretations offered by Rabbi Hanina.

Rabbi Hanina’s second interpretation holds that the well is like Zion, and the three flocks of sheep are the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. From the well of Zion, Israel draws forth not water but the divine spirit, for which all the people gather and rejoice.

The third interpretation also involves Zion, but this time the three flocks of sheep symbolize the three central courts of law. From this well the judges draw forth the water of Torah to learn how to rule; they put the stone back after they debate the law and settle the matter. Following the trajectory of the rabbinic sense of history, it is quite natural to flow from the desert wandering to Zion. The first of the two Zions represents religious and national aspirations; the second recalls the legal system of the Israelite kingdom. Both hark back to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.

In the fourth Midrash, Rabbi Hanina evokes external historical forces. The well represents Zion again, but the flocks are the three imperial powers who ruled it — Babylon, Persia and Greece. These oppressors drew forth from the well the wealth of the Land of Israel and the Temple. When the stone is rolled back, in the future messianic age, the Roman yoke will also be broken. This interpretation acknowledges the trauma of defeat and exile, past and present. It ties the hope of future redemption from Roman oppression to the past defeat of the other imperial powers. We can hear in this Midrash the rabbi’s prayer that God will redeem the people Israel from their exile and restore them to sovereignty in their homeland.

The fifth and sixth interpretations flow from exile to the rabbinic way of keeping exilic Judaism alive. The well is like the Sanhedrin, and the flocks of sheep are the three rows of scholars. From the depths of the well they learn halachah, debating it until settled, and then they place the stone of halachic decision-making back in its place. Then the well is like the synagogue, with the three flocks of sheep as the three aliyot to the Torah. At this well Jews drink deeply from the water of Torah, hearing it read and learning its truth and wisdom.

In this progression of allegories, first the Sanhedrin and then the synagogue replace the priesthood and the Temple as the center of Jewish communal organizing and authority.

The order of Rabbi Hanina’s six interpretations seems profoundly intentional. It ends not on a messianic note, but with the symbol of Jewish survival in exile, namely, the synagogue. The beit Knesset offers real hope: There Torah is taught, and there Jewish continuity is ensured, even in the absence of sovereignty.

Of course, the list can’t end at six. Rabbi Yochanan offers a fitting conclusion that brings the total to seven, the Jewish number of completion. Here the well refers to Mount Sinai. The three flocks of sheep are the priests, Levites, and Israelites. From the well of Sinai they receive Torah and learn the Ten Commandments. The great stone is the Shechinah, God’s Presence in exile. They rolled the stone away to hear God’s word; they put the stone back at the close of God’s Revelation.

The Revelation of Torah at Sinai is what makes the previous six interpretations possible. Without Sinai, the Exodus would have been incomplete, and there would be no Zion, redemption, Sanhedrin, halachah, synagogue, or, of course, Torah. Rabbi Yochanan’s seventh allegory infuses the midrashic series with a God’s-eye view of Jewish historical experience. Exile and domination by a foreign power are temporary. What matters most is that God has chosen the people Israel as the bearers of Torah in the world, with the Rabbis as its teachers and interpreters.

That belief has helped us suffer the most inhospitable conditions and yet remain a people of hope and peace. Even in the midst of insecurity and dispersion, the well of Torah travels with us and provides its life-giving waters whenever we roll away the stone of interpretation to plumb its depths.

Friday Night with Grandpa

112114_jewishview-Rabbi-WeinrebMy paternal grandfather, Chaim Yitzchak Weinreb, was an old-school Jew, with roots in the region of eastern Poland known as Galicia. He had studied under renowned Talmudists back in the old country, and his fervent wish was to see his grandchildren grow up to be dedicated Talmud students.

I was his oldest grandchild and discovered from a very early age just how determined he was to steer me in what he was convinced was the right direction. I particularly remember the time he visited my parents’ home when I was in the seventh or eighth grade. I had just received my report card and proudly showed it to him. I felt it was a pretty good report card, but for him, anything less than perfection was inadequate. After one glance, he noticed just how uneven my academic performance was.

He spoke to me in Yiddish, unadulterated by English phrases — pure, old-fashioned Yiddish. He protested that my grades were spotty. “You did very well in Chumash, Bible, but not nearly as good in Talmud. How can one truly know the Bible if he is ignorant of Talmud?”

I responded defensively by saying that I saw no connection between the Bible portions of Genesis that we were then studying and the tractate of Bava Metzia, our Talmud text that year. “The Chumash is full of great stories, but the Talmud is only about legal arguments, some of which are over my head.”

He smiled and said that if I would give him an hour on the upcoming Friday night, he would give me kugel and soda, teach me a song and demonstrate how the Talmud elucidates the Bible in an “amazing” way. Only he didn’t say “amazing,” he said “vunderbar.”

That Friday, true to his word, and he was always true to his word, he personally served me the kugel and soda, taught me a song that he had learned from the old rabbi of his now-extinct shtetl and asked me to review with him a short passage in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Toldot.

You know the story. Esau, the older brother, comes in from the field, famished. He finds his younger brother, Jacob, cooking a pot of stew and asks for some of it. Jacob is willing to give it to him, but for a price. He demands that Esau first sell him his birthright; that is, the material and spiritual privileges that come with being the first born. Translated literally, he says: “Sell me your birthright, kayom, like today!”

Whereas nowadays, kids will call their elderly grandfather Zayde or Saba, we called ours Grandpa. Despite his old-fashioned demeanor, in many ways he was as American as apple pie. He asked me if I found anything problematic with the story.

I did. “The phrase kayom seems strange, Grandpa. Why does Jacob insist that the sale should be ‘like today?’”

He responded, “Good! Maybe you have [a Talmudic intellect] after all. But let’s see if you can ask a question on the whole transaction based on the Talmud texts you are now studying in school. Here’s your volume of Talmud. I’ll give you 10 minutes to come up with a really good question.”

To say that I was frustrated would be putting it mildly. Not only was I going to be stuck studying all Friday night — I was actually being asked
to think.

But one did not say no to Grandpa. So I opened the large book, pored over it and focused on the task with great concentration. I was searching for a connection between a fascinating story and what I then experienced as some very boring rules and regulations.

After some time, probably much more than the allotted 10 minutes, I had an “aha!” experience. I really got excited. “Grandpa! It can’t be! How could Jacob purchase the birthright from Esau? The privileges of the birthright are way off in the future. They include privileges like a dual portion of their inheritance of their father Isaac’s estate, and Isaac was alive, if not entirely well, at that time. We studied in the Talmud that one cannot buy or sell objects or privileges that do not yet exist.”

My grandfather was thrilled, but no more than I was. Finally, I saw a connection between my Bible stories and the legal terminology of the Talmud that I had begun to resent.

He then sat back, asked me to relax and took the role of the teacher. “If you reached Page 16 of the tractate you are studying, you know this scenario. A fisherman wishes to sell the fish he will catch today to a customer. He doesn’t have the fish yet. Can he sell them? Yes, answers the Talmud. He can sell them if he desperately needs the money to feed himself that day. But if he wishes to sell the fish he will catch in 30 days or in a year, he cannot do that. If one is desperate, he can sell even objects that he does not yet possess, even fish that are still in the sea.”

There is a logical rationale for this legal principle, which I will omit in the interest of brevity. Suffice it to say, I now saw the connection between the story and the Talmudic principle.

“Of course Jacob said kayom. Sell me your birthright even though its privileges will not be realized until the distant future, but do so in your current state of desperation. Do so because you are famished and in your desperation have the legal ability, much like the fisherman, to sell something that is now nonexistent, because you need it for your urgent immediate needs. Sell me the birthright kayom.”

Grandpa was proud of me that day, but I was even prouder of myself. He told me that the concept that I had discovered on my own was to be found in the commentary Ohr HaChaim, which he studied assiduously every Friday night.

He then leaned back, stared at me with his gentle eyes and said, “I am trying to think of a prize, a reward for your willingness to sit with me for a few hours on a Friday night, for exerting your young intellect, and for seeing the connection between the Written Torah, Scripture, and the Oral Torah, Talmud.”

I sat there imagining all sorts of possible rewards, certain that he would ask for my input. Kugel and soda would have been acceptable but lowest on my list of suggestions. I was thinking big bucks or at least tickets to a baseball game.

Then he told me his idea. “From now on, every time I visit you, we will study together. And we will make it our business to discover connections. Our motto will be the verse in Psalms that says that God’s Torah is perfect, soothes the soul and brings joy to the heart.”

What a disappointment for a  12-year-old. But today, many decades later, each time I sit down before a folio of Talmud, I experience Grandpa’s reward. I can now appreciate Grandpa’s willingness to risk his popularity with his grandchildren, instead using every means at his disposal to get us to sit and learn with him.

The Importance of Free Will

This Shabbat we read from Parshat Vayera, which tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God destroyed these two towns filled with malicious people because they were so evil, God could not help them find the path of goodness.

Many times in the Torah, one must delve very deep into the text, looking at every word and every note, to find deeper meaning in a passage. In the story of Sodom, there is a very uncommon trope, shalshelet, which occurs only four times in the entire Torah. Each time, it sheds light on the meaning of the word on which it appears. The trope has 16 notes that alternate in frequency; it’s like one deliberating on a difficult decision — she makes a decision, than changes it, then changes it back and then ultimately comes to a final decision. Usually this decision is a struggle between one’s internal versus external self and ultimately reveals the essence of who he or she really is.

In the story of Sodom, shalshelet appears on the Hebrew word vayitmahmah, meaning, “and he delayed.” The trope reflects Lot’s indecision as to whether he should go away from Sodom or stay in the city where he has lived a lifetime. However, the choice whether to stay or leave is just the first layer of the choice. The deeper layers consist of Lot’s decision whether to believe in God or comply with Lot’s malicious neighbors. In Sodom, Lot has lost his connection to his Israelite religion; he has been seduced by his evil companions. Lot must reconnect to his Israelite companions, or it will jeopardize his life along with his family’s survival.

According to God’s plan, Lot chooses to return to his Israelite people and goes on to live a more virtuous faith. But what can we learn from this story? Are we supposed to learn to always follow our Judaism blindly or only rely on our internal instincts for guidance? While looking at this story, I chose to interpret this passage to mean that we should always follow God and our Judaic faith.

My personal belief about God is such: To believe that God either exists or does not exist is looking at God through a binary glance. I prefer to take the more multidimensional perspective and believe that God both exists and does not exist at the same time. If one believes that God exists or does not exist, then in his or her truth, He either exists or does not according to his or her beliefs. I believe that God exists, so in my truth, He exists. In Genesis 4:7, God says to Cain, “Timshol (Thou mayest … overcome sin).” By saying mayest, God is giving Cain and all of his descendants free will. Most people solely interpret free will as the choice whether to act in goodness or in evil. However, I believe that through timshol, God is not only giving us the ability to choose our actions, He is giving us the choice of whether to believe in Him or not, and henceforth decide if He exists in our own truth. The shalshelet reflects, for me, the understanding in Jewish life that our decisions, our beliefs and our actions can change back and forth over time and that indecision can, at times, help us understand our world, God and ourselves even better.

Sage Friedman is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

Rachel’s Desire

“Nice boots,” my friend Rachel said one day, as we walked home from Hebrew day school.

“I got them from one of my aunts, I’m her favorite!” I said.

“So let me know when you are ready to give them away.” Rachel said, as she gave me a wink. The next week as we walked home from school Rachel said, “I love Esti’s new knapsack — it’s paisley with a green trim. And by the way, I love that bracelet of yours. When you’re sick of wearing it, you know my address.”

“What?” I stopped short. “I don’t understand you.”

“I’m just saying that if you ever feel like giving away that bracelet.” Rachel’s voice trailed off.

“I’ll think about it.” I turned and walked into my house. Why did I have to listen to Rachel talk about everyone else’s belongings that she was trying to get?

“Love that new purse of yours,” Rachel commented just last month. And wasn’t it Rachel who recently admired my new bicycle — “I love used bikes,” she said, the day we needed to get something from my garage.

I was quiet at dinner, and my mother asked me what was wrong. I told her about Rachel and how uncomfortable she made me feel, always asking about my belongings and trying to find a way for me to give them to her.

“I bet Rachel isn’t aware that what she’s doing is against the Torah.” Mom put her arm on my shoulder.

“The Torah doesn’t want us to desire what belongs to someone else,” she continued. “The Torah tells us that when we see something that belongs to someone else and we want that for ourselves, it’s called taaveh, or desire.” Mom pointed to the line in the book. “Then, if the person tries to acquire that object by joking, hints, pressure, etc., that’s even worse.”

I looked up at my mother. “What do you mean?”

“That’s called coveting or attempting to get someone else’s belongings.” That’s breaking the Jewish law.

“It’s really that serious?” I stood up and took a deep breath.

“Yes,” Mom said. “Tell Rachel tomorrow that it’s fine to admire nice objects, but it’s another thing to desire them and to make plans to get them.”

The next day on our walk, I stopped short when Rachel began to talk about my new jacket.

“It’s one thing for us to admire these things, but it’s completely against the Torah to desire them.” I smiled and then went on to explain. Rachel listened. “I never knew that, and besides, I was just joking,” she said. “Let’s run home.”

I don’t know how Rachel felt about our conversation, but one good thing is that she never hinted again that she wanted what belonged to me.

A Call to Help the Children

In this week’s parshah, Abram is put to the first test. He is told to leave his homeland and go to the “land which I will show you.” He packs up all of his possessions, including his wife, his cattle, his servants and slaves and his tents. He then leaves his homeland and goes to Canaan, but because of a famine, he continues south to Egypt.

During his time in Egypt he has a skirmish with the Pharaoh and eventually is forced to leave Egypt and return to Canaan. Sometime after his return to Canaan, Abraham and Lot, his nephew, have an argument over land, and Lot leaves to go to Sodom. When Sodom is later under attack, Abram collects an army and defends Sodom and wins the battle. The king of Sodom tells Abram to take what he wants. But, being righteous, Abram will not take anything. Later, Abram asks G-d what he will do, because he is childless. G-d answers that his children will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abram then is told by G-d that his descendants will be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years, and they will be set free with great possessions.

In this parshah, Abram and his people leave their land in hope for something better. This is a pattern for the Jewish people that began with Abram leaving Egypt and has continued throughout time. It happened during the Middle Ages, in the pogroms, during the Holocaust and even in modern times. This pattern continued until 65 years ago, when the State of Israel was founded. Even though there are challenges there too, the Jewish people have a place they can call home. This is the very place that G-d promised to Abram’s descendants all those years ago.

Just like the Jews throughout history, another group of people is also looking for freedom and a better life. They are the immigrant children who are coming into the United States without their parents. They are often forced to live in horrible conditions, like the Jews did in the ghettos. They, like Jews throughout history, are struggling to survive.

I believe that our mission, as the Jewish people, is to help them. They are sent over as children on a perilous journey in hopes they will make it to America and have a better life, just like many of our ancestors. But, most of them get arrested at the checkpoints and are sent to prisons until the government decides what to do. The parents and the families of these children need someone to help — giving clothes, food, water, housing and moral support to get them on their feet

The countries they come from have dictatorial leaders or are overrun by the mafia and cartels. These dictators and illegal business leaders are forcing the children into slavery and are finding other ways of making their lives miserable. These children need someone like us, the Jewish people, who have experienced what they are going through.

The Jewish people have experienced desperate times, going all the way back to the time of Abram as we read today in this parshah. We were poor, looked down on and were persecuted for being Jewish for thousands of years. Nobody really helped us during the time of Abram, nobody helped us through the Dark Ages and even until the mid-20th century. We, unlike the people who persecuted us, should help the others who are less fortunate. We can perform the mitzvah of tzedakah — the act of making someone self-supportive.

A New Beginning

This Shabbat we read parshat Noah, and the haftorah is from the Book of Isaiah.

In parshat Noah, God floods the earth because of the bad behavior of the people. He tells the prophet Noah to build an ark and fill it with a male and a female of every animal and bring them on the ark along with Noah and his wife. Noah is saved because he had a good soul throughout his life, and he didn’t engage in acts of evil as did the people and community around him. Here, God decides to create a new beginning for humanity and the world.

By instructing Noah to build the ark, God allows Noah and his family to survive and to rescue the species of animals. In this way, God decides to create a new beginning for humanity and the world. In the Haftorah, God expresses his dissatisfaction with some of the Israelites who bring empty sacrifices and don’t consider the condition of the poor and brokenhearted. This behavior is parallel to the people in parshat Noah because God does not approve of their evil doings.

Nature also plays an important role both in parshat Noah and on Rosh Hodesh. In both texts, aspects of God’s creation are evident. In Noah, God promises to never destroy the earth again with a rainbow that which symbolizes the covenant between God and Noah that the earth will never by destroyed again by a flood.

This week we celebrate Rosh Hodesh, the start of a new month. Rosh Hoshesh is marked by the new moon, which is also a powerful symbol in nature. At the beginning of each month the moon appears as just a sliver, and then as time goes on the moon waxes and becomes bigger. This process can be compared to one’s life. Each individual’s life begins at birth when one is a tiny baby. As one grows and continues to develop into an adult, life offers many possibilities. This process begins for me today, as I become a bar mitzvah this week.

Sam Braman is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.