Learning in Egypt and the Survival of the Jewish People

Parashat Vayigash / פרשת ויגש
Torah Portion: Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

The history of Israel’s 400-plus year exile in Egypt, foretold in a divine revelation to Abraham earlier in the Book of Genesis (15:13), begins in this week’s Torah reading, Vayigash. The reading opens with Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, who had journeyed to Egypt in search of sustenance during the famine in Canaan (45:4). Prior to now, the band of brothers had been unaware that the Pharaoh’s vizier, to whom they were pleading and who put them through a series of nerve-wracking trials, was the brother whom they had long ago sold into slavery and about whom they told their father, Jacob, had been devoured by a ravenous beast.

All seems to end well in this parasha. Pharaoh invites the brothers to resettle their clan in Egypt. Jacob learns that Joseph is alive and well. Father and son are reunited. And all 70 members of Jacob’s household emigrates to Egypt, where they will wait out the famine and eventually thrive. Still, the Children of Israel are in exile in Israel. They literally “went down” to Egypt.

The exile motif has already appeared in the Torah several times. Recall that Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden in chapter 3 of Genesis. Later, Cain would be exiled (4:16). Then, each of the patriarchs would experience dislocation in one way or another either within Canaan or without. All these stories are part and parcel of Israel’s national story, serving to define Israel’s relationship with God and the land of Israel and giving shape to their mission in the world.

The exile of Jacob and his family, however, would last much longer than all the others and prove to be a great test of Israel’s ability to maintain its self-identity. By the time God liberates the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, they will have preserved a modicum of identity with their past as told through the stories of Genesis, but they will have effectively switched allegiance from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the gods of the Egyptians (see the article entitled “The Religion of the Israelites in Egypt” by Michael Alan Stein at http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/393/jbq_393_religioninegypt.pdf). While the extended sojourn in Egypt would engrave the experience of servitude upon Israel’s consciousness, the Hebrews’ link to their ancestral religion would become tenuous, at best.

Rather than discount Israel’s flimsy identification with the God of their ancestors and focus on their assimilation into Egyptian culture – an assimilation which might have been complete had not the experience of bondage brought them together as an oppressed people – we ought to celebrate that our enslaved forebears retained any identity as the People of Israel at all. In fact, on the eve of Israel’s liberation, the Hebrews’ response to Moses’s command to ready themselves for the exodus suggests they had recovered, at least in part, from the amnesia induced by centuries of disconnection from the Promised Land and the halt in progress of their nation’s narrative.

In looking for clues to the survival of Israel’s identity during their exile in Egypt, we find light in the commentary of Rashi, the preeminent medieval French commentator. As Jacob prepared to relocate his family, he sent his son Judah ahead to “show (le’harot) the way before him to Goshen” (46:28). Rashi shares a rabbinic midrash on the word “le’harot,” which can be translated as “to teach or instruct,” that says that Jacob had sent Judah ahead in order to establish in advance a house of study, from which teaching would go forth. The idea that Jacob would have a house of study established before his arrival to Goshen reflects the sages’ wisdom that for diaspora Jewry Jewish learning is essential to continuity and survival. It certainly is the case that traditions survive because one generation teaches them to the next. When there is no transmission of a people’s narrative or creative myths, there can be no lasting memory and the people’s identity is doomed to fade away. The rabbis of old understood that for Judaism to flourish, Jews need to teach their children and grandchildren what it means to be Jewish.

The midrash that Rashi shares is surely a projection of the rabbinic mind onto the Torah, but while it is unlikely that there were houses of Israelite study in Egypt prior to the exodus, it is not at all unlikely that Jacob’s sons told the story of their people to their children and their children’s children. Thus began an oral tradition that helped preserve the Hebrews’ identity as B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel.

In an age when the demographics of Jews in America continue to show waning commitments to Jewish religion and institutional affiliation, we ought to heed the lesson embedded in this week’s Torah portion. Without houses of study or, at least, houses in which parents and grandparents actively relate Jewish wisdom to their heirs, Jewish identity is doomed to dissolve. Such dissolution of identity may have been total for our ancestors in Egypt were it not for those elders who saw to it that the stories of the Children of Israel would be taught from generation to generation.

It is my hope that the American Jewish community will always find “Judahs” in each generation to safeguard Jewish learning and set up teachers for our children who will transmit to them the stories of our past and visions for our future. In this way, the People of Israel will live.

Jacob’s Rite of Passage: Celebrating the New, Appreciating the Old

Parashat Vayishlach / פרשת וישלח
Torah Portion: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

When last we saw Esau, he had just left home after having spent much of his life a victim of his younger brother’s antics. In utero, Jacob had tried to pull his twin brother back into the womb so that he could be born first and, thus, merit the birthright and blessing of the oldest son. Later on, he took advantage of a tired, hungry Esau and convinced him to sell the birthright for a bowl of lentils. Finally, Jacob stole from Esau the most precious thing of all — their father’s blessing. Imagine Esau’s anger upon discovering he was once again a victim of Jacob’s scheming! Imagine, too, Jacob’s fear of encountering Esau years later. This week, we witness the brothers’ reunion, a reunion that against all odds is peaceful and marked by contrition and forgiveness.

Before Jacob embarks on his journey to meet Esau, something incredible happens. Jacob wrestles all night long with a mysterious being on the banks of the Jabbok River. Depending on whose commentary or scholarship you read, the being is either an angel of God, Esau’s guardian angel or a river spirit, the latter reflecting a belief common in the ancient Near East. Regardless of whom or what Jacob wrestled, Jacob emerges from the experience but with a limp, a blessing and a new name — Israel. It is as if he becomes a new man overnight.

This scene follows 20 years during which Jacob labored for his father-in-law, Laban, and got a good dose of his own bitter medicine. Just as Jacob had tricked his brother, Laban does the same to Jacob, switching out one bride for another, changing the terms of his servitude and cheating him of earnings rightfully accrued over his years of servitude. When Jacob manages to extricate himself from his servitude to Laban and leaves with two wives, eleven sons, a daughter, and a sizable flock of sheep and goats that he somehow genetically engineered to be strong and healthy, he is a smaller, more humble person than he had been as a youth. Thus, the scene at the Jabbok marks Jacob’s maturation, emboldens him for his fateful reunion with Esau and establishes him as the worthy father of a great nation. Life begins anew the day after that struggle not only for Jacob (now, Israel) but for us, the Children of Israel, as well. For us, we can now rest assured that our patriarch is more than the slimy trickster we had seen earlier in the Torah.

For Jacob, what happened at the Jabbok is a rite of passage celebrated by taking on the name Israel. Jacob is not the only patriarch to undergo such a rite. Recall that Abraham had been Abram prior to entering into a covenant with God. Notably, the circumstances in each case are quite different. God had known Abraham to be righteous and just before singling him out for the covenant. Thus, the name Abraham — containing the Hebrew letter “hei,” part of the name of the God, whom Abraham has vowed to serve — indicates a change in status. Sarai, Abraham’s wife, is equally meritorious of a name change; God adds the letter “hei” to her name, too, and she becomes Sarah. In Jacob’s case, though, the name Israel indicates more a change of heart than a change in status. The name Jacob derives from words connoting stealth and cunning. Israel, on the other hand, means “one who wrestles/struggles/strives with God.” Jacob began life as an unlikely role model for his descendants, but ends life as one who accounts for his actions and answers to God.

We do not today refer to Abraham or Sarah as Abram or Sarai unless we are referring to those verses in the Torah where their names are still Abram and Sarai. Yet, with Jacob, sometimes we call him Jacob and sometimes we call him Israel. Why not only “Israel?” In the case of Abraham, there was nothing especially compelling to remember about his earlier life. Not so with Jacob, for he changed dramatically over time and for the better. We can’t celebrate who Jacob becomes unless we remember who he once was. Moreover, Jacob’s earlier traits of ingenuity and craftiness may serve humanity well when used for higher purposes. It is quite possible that without those traits, Jacob wouldn’t have been able to become Israel. For the Children of Israel, we, too, have needed to employ ingenuity and craftiness throughout our history just to survive. Were there no “Jacob” inside of us, there could be no “Israel.”

Certainly, the coronavirus has demanded that we think creatively about how to stay connected as a community and serve the physical, educational and spiritual needs of our members. Thank God, therefore, we still carry some of the younger Jacob within us, albeit a more refined and sensitive Jacob.

As we look back on that night by the Jabbok River, we can identify with our ancestor who wrestles with God, angels and spirits and emerges stronger and nobler. As the Children of Israel, let use the skills and wisdom we have gained through our own experience to get us through this moment in history and continue to build a vital, stable, peaceful future for us and our world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

What do you call Thanksgiving during a pandemic? Jacob has the answer.

Here’s a riddle for you: What do you call Thanksgiving during a pandemic? Answer to follow.

In this week’s Torah reading — Parashat Veyetzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3 — we encounter our forefather Jacob departing his home in Beersheva to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. Recall that Esau was not too happy that Jacob fooled their father, Isaac, into bestowing the blessing of the first born upon Jacob, when in fact, Esau was the first born and legitimately due the blessing. Told by their mother that Esau was planning to kill him, Jacob unhesitatingly heeded her advice and got the heck out of Beersheva. Before Jacob left for Haran, though, Isaac bade Jacob to find a bride from among his kinsmen there. 

Imagine how stressed Jacob must have been then! Not only might his vengeful brother have been in hot pursuit. Not only was the pressure on him to find a bride. But he was also leaving the comfort and safety of his home. Tradition presents Jacob as a homebody, the favorite of his mother, bookish. He was now way out of his element! Had any of us been Jacob, our anxiety levels would have been through the roof.

It was in that state of emotional and physical vulnerability that Jacob received his first prophecy from the Divine. Weary from his travels, Jacob found a place to lie down for the night. He did what any of us would have done: he found a comfy stone to lay his head on and went to sleep. While he was sleeping, Jacob dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven as God stood by his side promising him land, progeny and protection. It’s a wonder that Jacob could sleep at all, nevermind have a dream of such magnitude!

When Jacob awoke from his dream he said, “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.” Then, to mark this transformative event, Jacob makes a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safely to my father’s house — Adonai shall be my God.” Then he set up a pillar, a sacred marker, so future generations could build on that spot a House of God.

Wait just a second. Did Jacob just ask God to give him “bread to eat and clothing to wear?” That’s odd. He didn’t ask that God help him find a beautiful wife and vanquish Esau?

Now I get it! I could never figure out what God saw in Jacob. The Torah doesn’t portray Jacob as especially worthy of God’s blessing, and I’ve never found the midrashim — the rabbis’ creative readings between the lines of the Torah — at all convincing. But here it is! Of all the things Jacob could have prayed for in that moment, he prayed not for spectacular miracles but for bread and clothing — for those things that he already had. At that moment, I believe, Jacob thought, “My brother may harm me and I may not find the bride of my dreams. Still, all I ask is that God sustain me and let me keep my dignity. And should I die, let me find repose in the land of my fathers.”

Medieval biblical commentators implicitly criticize Jacob for having fallen asleep in that place. They point out that if Jacob had known God was in the place, he wouldn’t have gone to sleep in the first place. “I would have prepared myself to receive prophecy,” they imagine Jacob saying. But our sages overlook that aspect of Jacob that he had in common with all other prophets: he wasn’t expecting a personal relationship with God and he certainly didn’t feel worthy of God’s prophecy. He was too busy facing the exigencies of life and, despite the pressures that beset him, he was grateful just for “bread to eat and clothing to wear.” Had Jacob known God was in that place and held vigil throughout the night, God might never have appeared to him. It was specifically because Jacob had no grand expectations of God that God permitted him to fall asleep there and appeared to Jacob in a dream.

Consider this: we are at our must humble and vulnerable when we are asleep. We cannot sing our praises nor fight our foes when we are unconscious. Jacob may not have been a great role model for future generations, but here we find him at the peak of humility and vulnerability. That’s the model that the Torah wants us to follow. Jacob wakes up and expresses his gratitude for the simple things: bread and clothing. Maybe that’s why our traditional morning services also begin with expressions of gratitude for the little things: food, clothing, the ability to function. No matter what prophecy might come to us in our dreams, we must still be grateful for the basics, just as Jacob was.

And so, here we are, hunkering down in fear of the coronavirus. We pray that God, scientists, government officials and our neighbors will come together to vanquish this foe. Anyone who is heeding the advice of the CDC and refraining from traditional gatherings with family and friends is praying that the time will be near when we can again experience the hugs, kisses, laughter and — just maybe — heated exchanges that make those gatherings so special. In this moment of time, we are no different from Jacob.

Fearful of Covid-19, longing for a loving embrace, overcome with uncertainty, what are we to give thanks for this Thanksgiving? Jacob has given us the answer. We are to give thanks for God’s presence in our lives and for the simple things that sustain us and give us dignity. We have a choice: we can focus on what we lack due to circumstance or we can focus on all that we have by the grace of God. If we pay attention to the subtle hint in this week’s Torah portion, we’ll choose the latter. And when we do, we’ll discover the answer to our riddle.

Thanksgiving during a pandemic is… Thanksgiving.

Enjoy this time as best you can, and give thanks for love and grace in abundance.

Bivrachot/With blessings,
Rabbi Dan

To Find God, Stop Trying So Hard. Once You’ve Found God, Try Harder.

Parashat Vayetzei / פרשת ויצא
Torah Portion: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.” (Gen. 28:16-17)

As we live our lives distracted by the concerns of the workaday world, we tend to confine our moments of religiosity to sacred occasions in houses of worship. We go to synagogue to experience God. Sometimes it feels like a spiritual experience. Sometimes it doesn’t. Because we seek out such moments of transcendence only when we’re in synagogue, we harbor expectations and struggle to feel something spiritual, something like an encounter with God. We don’t struggle to encounter God while we’re at the gym, at work, or while shopping. Rather, we save our strength for that struggle for when we’re at our house of worship.

Given this reality for many, Vayeitze has two things to tell us: First, to experience God’s presence, stop trying so hard; second, to appreciate when you are in God’s presence, try harder. Indeed, the parashah seems to be directing us to two diametrically opposed approaches to religiosity. Chill, but be aware. In truth, the Torah is teaching us that our most profound encounters with God may very well come at the most unexpected moments, but for those encounters to be transformative, we need to recognize their profundity and respond with gratitude and wonder.

We have here a story of a patriarch who, during his travels, lies down for the night in an open space and is visited quite unexpectedly by angels and by God. It is literally in the middle of nowhere that God speaks to Jacob and reiterates the promise God had made with Abraham and Isaac before him: to become a great nation in a great land. Jacob constructs an altar at that place in the morning (Gen. 28:18), but he hadn’t done anything special the night before to prepare himself for his encounter with God, nor had he done anything special to merit such an encounter. It just happened.

But while God appears in Jacob’s sleep at a random moment in a random place, Jacob’s response to the experience is anything but random. Jacob marks his experience with words of awe, an expression of gratitude, and a vow to serve God always (28:18-22). He names that place Beit El, “House of God.” In other words, Jacob doesn’t take the experience for granted. He says, “God was in this place. This is God’s abode, the gateway to heaven.”

Just this week, I found myself someplace indoors waiting out an hour-long downpour before I could get to my car without getting completely soaked. My unwitting companion for that hour was a recent widow, who also wanted to avoid getting wet. So we sat in the lobby and chatted about politics, volunteerism, and family. A casual observer might have seen this as a routine encounter on a rainy day, or perhaps, as an ordeal for me. In fact, it was both of these, but more.

I choose to believe that my hour with this widow was a religious experience. It was an hour of connecting with someone I had never connected with before, of learning about who she is and what she cares about. It was an hour of conversation with someone who, with the passing of her husband, now craves connection. From my perspective, the world became a little bigger in that hour. I grew to know his person better. I was challenged by what she said to see things in a new light. This routine and somewhat trying encounter was also a God-filled experience.

I’m not quite ready to call my hour with this woman “awesome,” but not all religious experiences are awesome. Some are serene. Some are energizing. The awesome ones are rare and memorable. True. The secret, though, is not to discount the others. We need to be aware enough to say “God is in this place, too. In this moment of connection or serenity or excitement, I feel part of something larger than myself.”  That’s what I said to myself when the rain let up and I was finally able to get to my car.

None of this is to say, I don’t also look for God in synagogue. However, I find my time worshipping in synagogue is significantly more meaningful when I’ve been able to see God in the everyday randomness of life. I can show up on Shabbat and not feel that this is my one chance at spirituality this week. I can show up with gratitude for having known God’s presence in the ordinary and, therefore, not strain to feel it in this single moment. I can relax and enjoy my time with friends and community and let the words of the prayers transport me to another time and place.

When I stop trying to have a religious experience in synagogue, I’m often surprised to find that even in the sanctuary I am in God’s presence. While reciting prayers is not exactly the same as dreaming about God and angels as I lay asleep by the roadside with my head on a rock, it can be every bit as awesome. And I want to be as ready for that possibility at that moment as when I’m hanging out in the lobby schmoozing with a stranger.

May we find God without trying and be fortunate enough to say from time to time, “How awesome is this place!”

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan