Jacob’s Ladder

parashas Vayeitzei 5782

Life, time, and personal growth may be reckoned according to increments. Such as markers along the way, in terms of life events, both universal and personal. For example, what humankind has in common, regarding birth, religious commitment (Bar or Bas Mitzvah in Judaism), finding a vocation, marriage, and death. As for the individual points in time that may be more personal defining moments within the framework of our lives, these may include friendships, homes, geographical areas, all subject to change to one degree or another.

Yet, there must be a constant factor in life that is unchanging; at least, this would be the ideal situation. Inasmuch as modernity is so different than the traditional societies of the past, wherein there was more stability from generation within the same geographic area, or even the same ancestral home, what remains unchanged must needs be found within. Externals are too subject to change; we need a rock, a firm unchanging foundation in life.

So, on the one hand, while the ladder in Jacob’s dream spanning the length of heaven and earth may serve symbolically to remind us of the steps along the way of our life journey, whether personal or universal, another symbol may be found in the narrative, that serves as an unchanging reminder ideally keeping us grounded at all times, if we resort to its refuge: the even shetiyah – foundation stone. This stone may serve as the very foundation of our lives.

Permit me to explain. Within the framework of the narrative, Jacob, is on the road to Haran to find a wife from amongst his own kindred. Before he goes to sleep in a location referred to as hamakom (the place), he places rocks around his head. Ostensibly, this is to protect from wild animals. Yet, after his dream, upon realizing when he wakes that this place is “the House of G-d,” the very spot where heaven and earth connect, he proceeds to take the stone, and anoint the stone with oil.

In the plain sense of the verse, of the stones that he placed around his head the previous night, he chose one stone and anointed the stone with oil. From a midrashic perspective, it is as if the stones became one. In either rendering, the significance of this stone may be understood in light of the following verse: “Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation stone, a tried stone, a costly corner-stone of sure foundation (Isaiah 28:16, JPS 1917 Tanach). This refers to Moshiach (Messiah), who may be likened unto a sure foundation for our lives.

Values and Responsiblity

parashas Toldos 5782

The birthright is a responsibility that Esau chose not to accept upon himself, as is written, “I am at the point of death, so what use is my birthright to me?” (Genesis 25:32, JPS 1985 Tanach). Implicitly, this statement denoted his character and temperament at a crucial moment in time. It cannot be said that Esau gave up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew as if there were no other factors involved that led up to that moment. Surely, his lifestyle, ambition, and plans for himself, outside of the heritage of his father and grandfather, were not in alignment with the responsibilities that receiving the birthright would have required.

Thus, in a moment of stress, when put to the test, having been out in the fields for three days, without catching any game, tired and famished, he gave up what seemed less important to him at the time, stating that he was at the point of death, anyway, what benefit would the birthright be to him, if he had passed away at that moment? Yet, his words belie the truth of his heart, “what use is my birthright to me?” Perhaps, this was his perspective, regardless of being put on the spot by Jacob, who had told him that he would give Esau some lentil stew, if he sells his birthright to him. He simply did not see the value of his birthright: “He ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright” (Genesis 26:34, JPS).

The birthright would have entailed passing on the values of Abraham and Isaac to the next generation. Apparently, this did not concern Esau, who had been described in an earlier pasuk (verse) as “a man of the fields.” Yet, Jacob is described as an ish tam, a man who resided in tents. He was a shepherd like his father and grandfather before him. He led a stable life and had plenty of time to reflect upon the noble aspects of life, lifting himself up above the mundane.

Something to consider in today’s world, has to do with how we view our own lives, whether in an opportunistic manner, for the sake of ourselves, or in a way that reflects our concern for being proper role models for the next generation? Ultimately, we should keep in mind that how we live our lives should reflect our values. And, if we ask ourselves, what is really important in life, hopefully, we will be able to see past the immediacy of the moment. Lasting values are shaped over time and meant to be passed on to others, even if only by way of example.

Seeking Meaning

parashas Chayei Sarah 5782

“And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah.”

– Genesis 23:1, The Complete Jewish Tanach

Commentary notes that there is a specific reason that the word “years” appears after each component number of the total number of years of her life. Inasmuch as each time frame of her life is to be understood in a certain manner, the following rendering is given: her childhood, young adulthood, and adulthood were all equally good (based on Rashi). Imagine an equanimity of identity, intention, and purpose spanning the entirety of a life – this was the life of Sarah.

This may be contrasted with the lives of many people in modernity. Common language, currently describes different formative years in a negative way, for example, the terrible twos, the rebellious adolescence, and the burdensome task of “finding oneself” given to the young adult. Also, consider the pressure of higher-level education, and earlier, placing the burden of choosing an area of interest upon the student, before he or she may be ready to decide upon a profession. In like manner that so many teenagers and young adults change their image, interests, and friendships; college-bound students and university freshman change their majors.

And what of the often turbulent years of the teenager, as well as the young adult, especially if one’s formative years were actually not so formative? “Train a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, JPS 1917 Tanach). There is a continuum, expressed by Erikson, between “identity cohesion and role confusion,” especially during adolescence; yet, a cohesive identity may be formed as the result of parental instruction and role modeling. Additionally, each child may be brought up in accordance with his or her own personality, and learning style. This is not a task that can simply be relegated to the teachers where the child attends school.

Unless an individual embarks upon a steady path, replete with a moral component, then how can one navigate the vicissitudes of life? Too often, the formula of permitting the youth to experience life for themselves, without providing any clear guideposts, is the one taken by parents who have been influenced by the permissiveness of societal norms. Yet, there is still something to say for those throughout the world who are brought up within a more traditional framework. This would include those within cultures that embrace traditional morality, as well as those that uphold religious values.

The monotheism embraced by both Abraham and Sarah served as a rallying cry for their newfound beliefs, whereof each were committed to a high degree of sanctity in their lives, despite the idolatry and diminished moral sphere of the surrounding peoples of that time. Eventually, the three Abrahamic faiths influenced the world in a manner, whereby many people were called to a higher standard.

Comparatively speaking, as the standard of the world seems to decline in more recent times, it is even more important to plan a trajectory for our own lives, those of our children, and the future of society, even in the midst of societal breakdowns. We need a return to an unadulterated life of stability, purposeful intent, and commitment; instead of the rampant nihilism, experimenting, and seeking of entertainment, so common in modern society. May the pure, devoted, and moral life of Sarah serve as an example for us to seek meaning and the utmost good for our lives.

“Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” – Proverbs 29:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

The Three Angels

parashas Vayeira 5782

“Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.” – Psalm 51:6

“The glory of the L-rd was revealed to him in the valley of Mamre; and he, being ill from the pain of circumcision, sat at the door of the tabernacle in the fervor (or strength) of the day.”

– Targum Jonathan on Genesis 18:1, sefaria.org

“And the L-rd appeared to him. How? Three men who were angels came to him.” – Rashbam, sefaria.org

(selected passage Genesis 18:1-22)

Saadia Gaon contends, that because the three men that visited Abraham had departed, yet, Abraham remained in the presence of the L-rd, those three men, otherwise described as angels could not be counted as “identical with G-d” (commentary on Genesis 18:1, sefaria.org). Yet, the question remains that if only two angels arrived in Sodom, what occurred to the angel who goes unmentioned? Could the omission imply that the unmentioned angel remained with Abraham? If so, then, it may be said that it is as if G-d’s presence was present, as a result of the concomitant presence of this angel.

Truth is uncertain in the face of adversity; and, clarification is sought, yet, not always arrived at in a clear manner. And, so the mystery remains, in regard to the nature of the three angels, and their relationship to G-d’s presence that appeared to Abraham. Yet, it is noteworthy to consider that there is more to the narrative than we can comprehend; and, perhaps there are a few other clues to assist us in our understanding of the passage.

In further consideration of the angels being addressed as L-rd in both the singular and plural, the question may be asked, that if G-d is One, then perhaps this is a composite oneness, as denoted by the use of the word echad elsewhere in kitvei kodesh (holy scripture). For example, Adam and Eve are described as being echad. Also, the cluster of grapes brought back from Echol is “echad.” And, the men of the tribe of Judah that went out to battle are all described as echad. So, G-d’s Oneness, may be understood as a composite unity of three, if we stretch the margin of our intellect.

Integrity’s Origins

parashas Lech Lecha 5782

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; he was priest of G-d the Most High.” – Genesis 14:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

A tenth of all that Abraham retrieved from the five kings was given to Melchizedek; the remainder was considered properly tithed from the perspective of a later Torah injunction; yet, Abraham kept none of this, for his reward has to do with heaven and earth. Therefore, what has any man to offer Abraham? The King of Sodom’s riches would have been devoid of any spiritual blessing, since they would not have been bestowed upon Abraham by G-d; but, rather by man.

While it is true that blessings can be given to someone through men, according to G-d’s design, this would not have been the case, in regard to the loot that was recovered by Abraham, when he rescued his nephew Lot, who was captured by the five kings. Why? Because Abraham was righteous, and “disdained profit gained through oppression” (Akeidas Yitzchak; sefaria.org). That is to say that he forsook the wealth that was rightly his according to custom in order to maintain his integrity.

Every now and then, we may find ourselves in a similar position, not necessarily having to do with possessions; rather, as pertaining to a challenge designed to test the integrity of our convictions. Our belief and practice, as well as the strength of our convictions must be tested, so that we are able to permit these to take root in actuality. Otherwise, how would we know whether we have what it takes to act upon our convictions?

Although we have potential, whether from inborn traits or learned moral qualities that we have acquired along the way, some of these may only be in a potential resting state, until activated by the challenges in our lives. Everything in our lives that is presented to us as a challenge, obstacle, or hurdle, has a reason, concomitant with our purpose in life. It is our integrity that is born out of the way we meet these existential realities; and, if we handle them well, then we may increase in moral strength and character.

It’s Covenantal

parashas Noach 5782

“I will establish My covenant with thee; and thou shalt come into the ark.”

– Genesis 6:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

From the beginning of time, G-d did not plan on catastrophes, turmoil, and strife amongst mankind. Rather, mankind brought this upon themselves. When G-d created the world, He brought into existence human beings that were given free will. Yet, this freedom only exists within the overall construct of consequences, in regard to the types of choices man makes for himself. Freedom is circumscribed by guidelines and boundaries, in order to maintain the truest sense of freedom, that is to say, freedom from subjugation to evil.

Too often, we would like to point the finger at something outside of ourselves, condemning it as inappropriate, wrong, or even evil in and of itself. A sense of injustice, or righteous indignation compels some of us to seek amendments. Try as we may to subdue, suppress, and right the wrongs, we would do better to look within ourselves. This is where the real battle is fought, between the yetzer tov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination).

Through tikkun hanefesh (rectification of the soul), transformation becomes available to all who seek sincere self improvement. As Ghandi said, “Be the change that you would like to see in the world.” Yet, condemnation, shaming, and cancelling out of the other, will only bring a false utopia, that neglects to root out its own evil inclinations. “And the L-RD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5, JPS 1917 Tanach). Yet, Noach found favor in the eyes of the L-RD. And, the L-RD established His covenant with Noach, his family, and all of mankind.

Even so, man continued to rebel, in opposition to G-d; hence, the building of the Tower of Babel, wherein, man attempted to make a name for himself, to the exclusion of His Creator. Thus, a misguided effort was brought to halt through G-d’s intervention. Today, we may ask ourselves, whether we are contributing to the divine blueprint or an alternative design, that erroneously leaves G-d out of the equation. “Choose this day whom ye will serve” (Joshua 24:15, JPS).

Gan Eden Essentials

parashas Bereishis 5782

“The L-RD G-d took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.” – Genesis 2:15, JPS 1985 Tanach

Adam was given the responsibility to avdah (work) and shomer (guard) the garden of Eden. Yet, not until after Adam and Chava were expelled from Gan Eden, was he commanded to till the earth outside of the garden. The question may be asked, what was the essential difference between his responsibilities in regard to Gan Eden, and what comprised his role, once expelled?

A union with G-d (yichud, in Hebrew) constituted the existential nature of life in Gan Eden. Yet, that perfect relationship of oneness with G-d was broken by disobedience, having partaken from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When both Adam and Chava had partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they became self-aware, because the unity with G-d was interrupted.

As a result, existentially outside of Paradise, even before being officially expelled, their existence was disrupted by their own sin. In other words, they no longer were within the domain of perfect correspondence with the various components of Gan Eden. Sin, shame, and rebellion had entered into the picture, thereby disrupting peace and contentment.

Thus, within the garden, prior to the aveirah (sin), a G-d centered focus permeated every act, in regard to their endeavors. As explained elsewhere, that avdah refers to perfection of the soul, as per man being described as a nefesh chaya (literally, living soul; Ibn Ezra). Thereby, the refining of one’s personality is tantamount to the service that is concomitant with gan eden, when doing so under the guidance of H’Shem.

Yet, having been expelled, their lives subsequently encompassed, a self focused reality, wherein one attempts to improve himself, according to his own design, irrespective of the original blueprint. Having already given in to temptation, and partaken of the forbidden fruit, mankind was now subject to the challenges of dealing with his own unruly nature that had been unleashed.

The only way back to the garden is through acknowledgment of our own misguided attempts to continue on the path of independence from G-d; then to realize over time that these attempts are vain, and return to the original blueprint for our lives. This blueprint is known as the Torah, meaning “instruction.” All of kitvei kodesh (holy scripture) is of benefit for this endeavor, as well as listening to our conscience; for, G-d has given us an inner guidance system, with a homing beacon, called the soul.

Clouds of Glory

Sukkot 5782 – Shabbat Chol HaMoed

Torah reading: Exodus 33:12 – 34:26

The word sakoti, similar to sukkah, means cover or covering, and is found in the following verse: “And it shall come to pass, while My glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover [sakoti] thee with My hand until I have passed by” (Exodus 33:22, JPS 1917 Tanach). Perhaps, this is at least one connection found to Sukkot in the parashas chosen as the reading for Shabbat Chol HaMoed.

Creation as Witness

weekly Torah reading: parashas Haazinu 5782

“Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach thou it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 31:19, JPS 1917 Tanach

Moshe teaches B’nei Yisrael a song that will serve as a witness against the people, when they turn away from H’Shem in the distant future.  The song connotes the response of Creation to the mitzvoth (good deeds) and aveiros (transgressions) of B’nei Yisrael. 

The idea, as explained in commentary, is that all of Creation will respond in proper accordance, to both the good deeds and sins that are committed in the future. Thus, the children of Israel would be held accountable, so to speak, by all aspects of G-d’s creation found in the biosphere.

This is really an amazing condition, that seems nothing short of what might be called mystical, or at least spiritual in its fulfillment. Yet, in theological actuality, this simply has to do with G-d’s sovereignty. For He is L-RD over all of His creation; and, furthermore, his moral law is as if interwoven into the very fabric of creation.

Some aspects are already clear, as mentioned previously in Torah; for instance, an abundance of rain for the crops when Israel is in obedience to Torah vs. the withholding of rain when Israel transgresses. Yet, overall, the imagination can only wonder how else the promises would be fulfilled. Additionally, whether this actuality may apply to our own lives today, is wondrous to ponder upon.

Shabbat Shuvah 5782

“And they shall say on that day, ‘Surely it is because our G-d is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.'”

– Deuteronomy 31:17, JPS 1985 Tanach

“They will be intelligent enough to conclude that all the troubles which suddenly overtook them must be due to G-d having deliberately left their midst.”

– Or HaChayim on Deuteronomy 31:17, sefaria.org

The key word here in this commentary is “deliberately,” as if it is implied that the people realized that their own sins compelled G-d to abandon them. This is an important connection for them to make, whereas without recognizing their own complicity, would only have led to blame G-d for His abandonment of them, as if they had no part in the matter. Consider the attitude of some, in blaming G-d for harsh events in life, holding Him accountable for our suffering, without acknowledging the sins that created the distance between us and Him in the first place. The point being, that it is the wrong attitude to have, a spoiled mindset to think that we deserve better, despite our abandoning Him through our own misdeeds. And, yet, He is compassionate and merciful, inasmuch that hiding His face from us, He desires us to cry out with a heartfelt repentant stance, taking it upon ourselves, to return to Him, in all of our ways, in order to elicit His forgiveness. Thus, it may be seen in regard to what is sometimes called today “tough love,” for example when parents stop enabling their children who exhibit poor behavior, and, rather, deny them assistance, or any kind of monetary support until they correct their errant ways.

And, so, we do not understand G-d to be capricious: rather everything is ultimately designed for our benefit, even the chastisement that is placed upon us, when we go astray of G-d’s commandments. For nothing happens by chance in an ordered world, that is a world whose order is often above our own understanding. Any randomness that appears to occur is only based upon  a perspective that does not have the type of faith in H’Shem that accepts His sovereignty over all events in the world, as well as those that occur to us on an individual level. To understand that everything happens according to G-d’s will, or is permitted by Him, is to recognize His absolute sovereignty in all realms of life. Surely, He is not to blame when bad things happen to good people, for man is responsible for his own sin against his fellow man, and if G-d permits something bad to happen to us, it is for a reason, that we are to attempt to understand. Otherwise, we will fall prey to a lack of faith in Him as sovereign. Furthermore, to be angry at Him for the bad things in our lives is to deny His sovereignty over us. We must return to Him, especially as we feel compelled to do on Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Repentance), so that we do not hold any grudges against the very one whose wisdom soars above our own.

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