Student Teaching in the New Millenium

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5771 Shemot

In Exodus on December 29, 2010 at 3:01 am

For it is precept by precept, precept by precept, Line by line, line by line; Here a little, there a little. (Isaiah 28:10)

Is Isaiah’s reading of the Parsha to be understood as “back to basics”?

Time has passed. Joseph and his generation died.  Here is a people perhaps who know of the covenant, but don’t necessarily know the covenant. At Temple, it is said that Exodus marks the transition from personal focus on the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to communal focus on the Israelite people. But does it, though?  “Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him: ‘Put away the strange gods that are among you, and purify yourselves.'” (Genesis 35:2)  Isn’t this as much about the communal experience as the personal one?  Does this support the position that the Israelites, from the time of Jacob, were ever a stiffnecked and imperfect community?  “And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed.” (Genesis 17:12)  “In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son.  And all the men of his house, those born in the house, and those bought with money of a foreigner, were circumcised with him.”  (Genesis 17:26-27)  Isn’t the community’s equal participation in the covenant established before Exodus? Why then is Exodus the transition? Is it the difference between a communal lech lecha and a personal one? But can’t we say the departure of Jacob, or Israel, with his family was also a communal lech lecha?

We find Moses, a man brought up as an Egyptian, but raised by his Levite mother,  without trust in God.  Why? Was this to protect his identity? Or had his mother forgotten the covenant? Hertz explains that, in Egypt, “a large portion of the Israelites in time forgot the…religious practices of the Fathers…the greater portion of the people must have kept alive in their hearts the memory and hope in Israel.” What is this must? Hertz bases this assertion on the fact that the Israelites survived assimilation and maintained their separate existence. Isn’t it also possible, as the Torah evidences, that the Egyptians were somewhat xenophobic? Even had the Israelites completely assimilated, wouldn’t the natural suspicions of the native people have kept the divisions alive? Isn’t this part of the story of the Holocaust? Hertz goes on to present the Levites as “foremost among the loyalists” to Israel, “who alone maintained the covenant of Abraham.”  Can we infer that all that was maintained was circumcision?  What else was passed on?  What wasn’t?

“And the daughter of Pharaoh…had compassion on him, and said ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.'” (Exodus 2:5-6) Pharaoh’s daughter, who saved Moses from death, knew Moses’ identity as a Hebrew. “And the maiden went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her: ‘Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages.’ And the woman took the child, and nursed it. And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son.” (Exodus 2:8-10) It seems Moses’ family had ample opportunity to teach him the history and mores of the Israelite people – readily if Hertz’ assertions are correct – yet Moses’ later conduct says otherwise. Is there an underlying assumption that Moses’ was raised in Pharoah’s household at that time? Why say “Take this child away” and then “she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son”? Would the rights and privileges and expectations of Egyptian royalty have been conferred on him before or after he was brought to Pharoah’s daughter? Moses still recognized his kinsmen later in the parsha. Why didn’t he recognize God? Why did he force God to spoonfeed him rhetoric that he should have already known?  If Moses was raised as an Israelite, and then became Egyptian royalty, could he have been acquainted with Egyptian worship?  Could he have forgotten his upbringing?  Either way, could Moses have started as an idol worshipper?

Is the point of all this to show how far Israel backslid in the intervening years between Jacob and Joseph, and Moses? Moses grows up and becomes a Prophet in the same portion as he is born and weaned. Is Moses “Them that are weaned from the milk, Them that are drawn from the breasts?” as Isaiah says? Does this apply to the Israelites as well, being for the first time without the firm hands of the Matriarchs guiding the household observances (e.g. Rebekah)? That even the women, though loyal to their heritage, were ill-equiped to pass on the knowledge of the covenant? “The women shall come, and set them on fire; For it is a people of no understanding.” (Isaiah 28:11) Such that, first with Moses, and later with the community at Sinai, they need to be fed “the word of the Lord unto them Precept by precept, precept by precept, Line by line, line by line; Here a little, there a little; That they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.” (Isaiah 28:13)

Is this so terribly unlike the Jewish experience today?

Does Isaiah also read the inevitable exile (“snared and taken”) as a blessing? “Jacob shall not be ashamed…When he seeth his children, the work of My hands, in the midst of him, That they sanctify My name.” Is exile even being promoted, not just as a blessing, but as a commandment toward the attainment of this condition? Can we call Jacob an exile for being removed from Canaan to Egypt? Can we call Israel an exile for being removed from Egypt to the wilderness? Didn’t Israel finally learn how to pray in Egypt? “And their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.” (Exodus 2:23) Didn’t Israel finally meet their God at Sinai? “And all the people perceived…the voice of the horn.” (Exodus 20:15)

Does Isaiah have the same trouble making sense of the parsha as I do!  Shemot is full of stress and paradox.  You have a people united by covenant but with little memory of covenant.  A woman at once a Levite – “the residue of His people”?  (Isaiah 28:5) – and unable or unwilling to raise her child adequately.  You have a prophet at once inclined towards his heritage yet distrustful of God.  “They are confused because of wine, They stagger because of strong drink; They reel in vision, they totter in judgement” (Isaiah 28:7)?  Is Isaiah’s this frustration?

Anthony Bourdain once visited the Bedouin on No Reservations.  They told him that staying in the desert was the only way to truly cleanse himself of the stored up intoxicants of his life.  Does Isaiah agree?  Is exile the opportunity to detoxify?

How does Rashi read that Moses was checking to see if any of the Egyptian’s descendants would convert to Judaism? I wonder what Rashi’s perceptions of Moses upbringing and abilities were. His assertion that Moses spoke God’s name to kill the Egyptian suggests that Moses was fairly acquainted with his heritage. His statement that Moses was mystified by the burning bush before the angel suggests to me that Moses still didn’t possess the recognition of his ancestors: he had to be reminded first. Is God known by the Tetragrammaton by any of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs? I thought they knew him as Shaddai. If this is so, how would Moses…or anyone, for that matter…know the Tetragrammaton? Is this based in the oral tradition?

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5771 Vayechi – D’var Torah

In Genesis on December 29, 2010 at 1:19 am

This D’var Torah was given at Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY, on Saturday morning, December 18.

Let’s talk, for a minute, about the weather. It’s gotten cold around here, hasn’t it? Cold, and there’s a lot of snow. You know, I think we have a unique perspective on Torah, and Genesis in particular, living in a place with such dramatic changes in season.

Genesis is the Autumn book. Fresh from the renewal of the High Holidays, we look forward to another year, as Genesis looks forward to the ongoing creation of the world from the void. Summer flowers are replaced by young Fall blossoms which grow up, grow old, and wilt, as do our forebears in lockstep with the changing season. The world is vibrant with the cycle of life. Hope is Time’s bride, and we look towards the future.

And then, Winter comes. Exodus is begun. And our exile from the warm weather begins.

How distant Reuben must feel when Jacob says “unstable as water, you shall excel no longer”, or “you are unreliable! You will not lead the children of Israel.” How cut off Simeon and Levi must feel when Jacob says “Unto their assembly let my glory not be united”, or “You have embarrassed me! You have disgraced me! I will not be remembered through you.” How indifferent Jacob’s other sons may feel to Jacob’s comparably neutral blessings for them. “Every one according to his blessing.”

They may have said “wow, we got off easy…but what about Judah and Joseph?”

Exile blesses and illuminates as well as tests. Judah is told “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah” and “thee shall thy brethren praise.” Judah takes the lead and saves Joseph from his brothers, suggesting exile. His brothers listen to him. Judah takes the lead. Remember this. Joseph is told “But his bow abode firm, and the arms of his hands were made supple” and “The blessings of thy father shall be on the head of Joseph”, or “You will be fine, and you will do well.” Joseph remains loyal to God in exile, and saves many people from starvation by his efforts. His brothers are among those saved. Ironically, they sent him there.

What does this all mean? King David, in the Haftorah, helps us out. David, like Jacob, blesses his sons before dying, “every one according to his blessing.” The prophet focuses on Solomon. He tells Solomon “Be thou strong therefore, and show thyself a man.” This is a key to the parsha.

What does it mean to “be strong, and be a man”? Not killing your brother might be a good start. But I think the parsha is quite clear. Reuben is called “unstable as water.” In the past few weeks, we see Reuben trying to save Joseph by wild schemes, tricking his brothers into leaving Joseph in a pit so he can return later and “save” him. When Jacob worries for Benjamin’s safety in Egypt, Reuben brashly tells Jacob to kill his own sons for Benjamin and Joseph. The Hertz chumash tells us the Hebrew word for “unstable”, pachaz, means “recklessness.” What can we take from this? How about, be steadfast? Maybe, don’t be reckless? Simeon and Levi are accused of “maiming oxen.” A few weeks ago, they convinced the men of Shechem to circumcise themselves. “Cursed be their anger.” Simeon and Levi promptly attack and kill them while they are in pain. How about, deal honestly? Uphold honor? Don’t be cruel? Pursue justice?

Actions of merit beget rewards of merit, and dishonorable actions earn dishonorable rewards. These are the blessings of Joseph and Judah, and these are the blessings of Reuben, Simeon and Levi. “Every one according to his blessing.” Or, as the JPS translation tells us, “to each a parting word appropriate to him.” The message, then, is simple: Be upright, steadfast, and honorable. Be gentle, honest, and just. Leadership must reflect merit. Know who you are. We are Jews, not Reubs.

I wonder if this is why the Hebrew words for Jew and Judah are so similar?

So what’s in store for us next? Jacob is buried. We are Israel. It is Winter; the exile has begun. Exodus begins again (though not anew!) (or “continues”) tomorrow, and we meet Moses in Egypt. What does this mean for us? Tie your shoes. Rest well. Drive safely. Be gentle, steadfast and just, and we will make it through Exodus to see the promise of Spring.

Good Shabbos.

5771 Vayyeshev

In Genesis on December 21, 2010 at 5:55 am

Is the dream about the sheaves a prediction of the famine, and a prediction of the brothers’ conduct towards Joseph in Egypt?

Is the dream about the sun, moon and stars a prediction of Joseph’s experiences in Egypt? Jacob, I think, interprets the sun and moon to be himself and Rachel, who is dead. Is it possible that “sun” refers to the land of Egypt (Ra-worship, the sun god) and the moon refers to Israel (God worship, who creates light in darkness)? I agree with the eleven stars being the brothers. Are these dreams similar to Pharaoh’s in that the 11 sheaves and 11 stars are one, making them a double confirmation of what God intends to do? Joseph later tells Pharaoh this, saying the repetition is a confirmation of God’s intent. Is this what Joseph means when he explains his brothers’ actions to them?

Did all of the brothers really hate Joseph? Or only some? I don’t think the Torah ever says “all of his brothers hated him.” Hertz explains that the initial suggestion to kill Joseph came from Simeon. I can understand dislike if they knew Jacob favored Rachel, and Joseph, over them. This sets the stage for dislike, regardless of Jacob’s behavior, to me. Reuben’s intent was to deliver Joseph back to Jacob. Did he not really “hate” Joseph that much but saw the opportunity to reconcile with Jacob? Particularly, consider: for this to work, Joseph couldn’t know his true intentions. Reuben would have had to convince his brothers to leave Joseph in the pit, hide himself from Joseph, and come back to rescue him. A wild scheme. And would it work without some trust in Reuben by Joseph? Judah recommends they sell Joseph. Amos condemns this act, and I think I know why: defend the righteous, don’t sell them out. However, if Ibn Ezra’s placement of the story of Joseph and Tamar before this episode is correct, then Joseph already knows this (“She is more righteous than I.” Gen 38:26). If Judah had overtly defended Joseph from, say, Simeon and Levi, who murdered the men of Shechem to satisfy vindictiveness, would Joseph have survived? Was Judah defending Joseph? Or is Judah as bad as his brothers?

I think Amos reads the parsha as an indictment of behavior between people. I find it an outright condemnation of the brothers’ attitude towards Jacob. Does he question and contrast Judah’s behavior with Joseph?

Judah took a Canaanite woman to wife. Then he slept with Tamar, not as Tamar but as a harlot which, Hertz explains, has connotations in heathen worship. Judah’s easy proposition to Tamar makes me ask: was he familiar with this? I think he was. Which makes me ask: had he participated in this before? Perhaps taking part in the customs of his Canaanite wife? This is supported by 38:12, “Judah was comforted, and went up unto is sheep-shearers to Timnah.” Hertz explains that “Judah found it becoming to attend the Canaanite festivities in connection with the sheep-shearing.” I find “went up” to be an interesting choice of language here. The Hebrew is not “aliyah” but “yaal” which looks close. Also, how was Judah “comforted?” The Torah seems silent. Judah was not at home, in alien circumstances, and was surrounded by temptations. I think these points support a conclusion that Judah, temporarily, was seduced into a Canaanite way of life. His encounter with Tamar in this context was a result. Hence, “Neither shall the mighty deliver himself; Neither shall he stand that handleth the bow; And he that is swift of foot shall not deliver himself; Neither shall he that rideth the horse deliver himself.” (Amos 2:14-15) Judah couldn’t escape the results of his actions, any more than anyone else can, and he learned this lesson. I think this is why he saved Joseph from death. I think this is also why he became such a strong leader. Meanwhile, Joseph, under similar circumstances, remained loyal, “And he that is courageous among the mighty Shall flee away naked in that day, Saith the Lord.” (Amos 2:16)

Did Jacob ever learn about Judah’s episode? Or is this story the Torah’s equivalent to a wild spring break? Why did Judah take a Canaanite wife in the first place? This seems like something Reuben might do, why Judah? Is the point that Judah was chastened by his experiences while Reuben was not? Is the point that Judah was rendered wiser and less volatile than the kid who ran off with the girl from the other side of the tracks?

Is the Nazirite in Amos a reference to Judah? He was given wine to drink, or, he was urged to break his vow (or commitment, to follow the God of his father Jacob).

I think the Torah is making a statement about two different brands of leadership. Judah’s, and Joseph’s. Judah’s is a conscientious and brave form of leadership, prone to taking risks and making mistakes but open to learning from them, with honorable intentions. Hence, his understanding of what Amos says: actions have consequences. Is Amos making not one but two points? On one hand, if you do wrong, there is no escape from what you’ve done. On another hand, be responsible for your actions? Does this outlook enable someone to be sober yet visionary? Is there a difference?

Joseph’s brand of leadership is managerial and organized, but more secure and conservative in using what he is given. He remains loyal to God and God helps him in return. He is detail oriented and seems happy to do whatever he is tasked with. He works primarily with what he has been dealt, aside from asking the butler to help him get out of jail. His dreams are given to him by God, so he has foresight. But is he a natural visionary? Is he creative enough to think outside the box and lead Israel on his own merit? Does Joseph grow? Judah is less “courageous” in the Amos sense than Joseph, but Judah is more courageous about living life, making mistakes and growing. Is this what is necessary to lead? Is this part of why Judah won the kingship of Israel?

Hertz says that Joseph is the Jewish ideal. Is he truly, on his own? Judah seems t have qualities that Joseph lacks. Should we follow Judah? Should we follow Joseph? Each according to his blessings?

Do these different brands of leadership have a part to play in the later story of Israel?

5771 Vayishlach

In Genesis on December 17, 2010 at 3:57 am

Who is the man Jacob struggles with? Does he struggle, literally, with God? “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Gen. 32:31) “But the Lord, the God of Hosts, the Lord is His name.” (Hosea 12:2). But is the man truly God? “I will not execute the fierceness of Mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim; For I am God, and not man, The Holy One in the midst of thee, And I will not come in fury.” (Hosea 11:9) Why the injury? Is this God trying to best Jacob? Or something else? Is this a physical reminder of God’s promise, and possibly a punishment for doubting it, that God will be with Jacob in all things? Jacob’s prayer to God is panicky and petulant: And Thou saidst: I will surely do thee good. (Gen. 32:13) I note that Jacob is frantic before this episode and composed afterwards. Is the thigh a proverbial slap in the face, a wake up call? “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou has striven with God and men, and hast prevailed.” (Gen. 32:29)

“Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day.” (Gen. 32:33) Why this break in the narrative? Aside from the injunction, where does this come from? Is this an insertion? This makes it look as if the entire passage is an insertion; is it?

I see in this parsha a allegory of the Yom Kippur service. Every Yom Kippur, we reflect on our deeds of the past year and beg forgiveness in the hopes of being inscribed in the Book of Life, that we and our generations may continue. As Jacob nears his homeland, he is reminded of the anger of Esau and, fearing for his life, begs God for help. “I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant…Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children. And Thou saidst: I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.” (Gen. 32:11-13) Yet, just as in Yom Kippur, the prayer atones us before God for things between us and God, but does not atone for those things that lie between us and other people. And, immediately after these trials, Jacob does his best to reconcile with Esau. “And he urged him, and he took it.” (Gen. 33:11)

It says that the sons of Jacob respond to Shechem and Hamor with guile. Jacob later rebukes Simeon and Levi for their actions. Rabbi Hertz points out that Jacob only rebukes his sons for their actions relative to his personal safety. I disagree. “Ye have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land.” I envision Jacob, taking council with his sons, approved the proposal that all of the men of Shechem and Hamor circumcise themselves before it was given. Although they may speak for the father, brothers do not make marriage arrangements in lieu of the father if he is present and able. Therefore, publicly, would the proposition have been Jacob’s? The text reads “to make me odious” and not “to make us odious” or “to make our people odious.” “Let my soul not come into their council; Unto their assembly let my glory not be united.” (Gen. 49:6) Simeon and Levi’s actions reflected on Jacob, not themselves.

Why does the parsha record the generations of Esau? Why does Jacob permit his company to keep “strange gods”? Why do they need to purify themselves? Purify themselves from what? Ritual impurity? Where and what are the laws of ritual purity at this point?

5771 Vayyetze

In Genesis on December 13, 2010 at 4:04 am

What is meant by “the place” in 28:11? Is this the wilderness? Or something else? Why this designation?

I am not sure what to do with Jacob’s ladder. “And behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” Is this a sign of the holiness of the place? Is this a sign of the significance of the inheritance? Is this a sign of the connectedness of all things? Or the mundane (earth), the holy (heaven), and the sacred (the ladder and the angels)? Is this a message to sanctify time? As the angels traverse this heavenly ladder in their service to God over time, are we supposed to build our own ladders to God in ours? Shouldn’t we always be building, and climbing, our ladders to heaven? Are these both the same thing? And isn’t this aliyah? By sanctifying time, by studying, engaging the creative tradition, and performing acts of lovingkindness, aren’t we “going up” the ladder ourselves, and those around us? Is just seeing the ladder, a personal aliyah, and elevation? What is the difference between one who sees the ladder and one who climbs it? What is the difference between one who climbs up and one who climbs down?

“And, behold, the Lord stood beside him.” Was God standing beside Jacob as an equal here? Is it significant that God does not here ask for sacrifice, but simply reassures Jacob of His promise? Was this always His intent, as referenced by Hosea in his exhortation to bring words, not bullocks? In fact, Jacob suggests the tithe in 28:22, along with making a vow to accept God as his God. Is this just idiomatic? Or is something else going on here? Does this say by implication that Jacob was not a follower of God up to this point? Did Jacob (later Israel) struggle with this belief of his ancestors? It seems to me that Jacob’s vow is less a promise and more dictating terms. Is this less a vow than personal reassurance and justification of the promise, that is, struggling with these beliefs again?

“‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Beth-el…’And this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s home.” Is this forward looking to the Temple in Jerusalem?

Hosea reminds us of the benefits of following God and the dangers of idolatry. Is Laban an example of this? I think the general assumption is, being related to Abraham, that Laban was a fellow follower of God. He believed in God (“I have observed the signs, and the Lord hath blessed me for thy sake.” “The God of your father spoke unto me yesternight.”) But it is revealed that Laban worshipped idols, the teraphim that Rachel stole. Why would Rachel do this? According to Hertz, the Midrash states this was to prevent Laban from worshipping them. Why? Did Jacob convert Rachel to belief in one God? Or were Rachel (and Leah, for that matter) already accustomed to worshipping God in the manner of their family? Why does Laban call the teraphim “my gods.” Does this mean that they were his gods alone, separate from the tradition of his family (i.e. the God of Nahor)? Why occasion the theft? If they were “our family gods,” perhaps out of a sense of attachment. However, the Torah states “his gods.” Also, “whatsoever God hath said unto thee, do.” Not “whatsoever your God hath said unto thee, do.” It could be argued that, by this time, a conversion took place. However, Leah is referring to God since the birth of Reuben, several years earlier. Perhaps something occurred prior to this? I don’t know. There is the overriding fact, however, that Jacob was sent to Haran for the same reason as Isaac was: to marry someone of their family who would not lead the descendants of Abraham back to idolatry.

This leads us to Haran and “his gods.” Are the losses of Laban and the gains of Jacob a demonstration of Hosea’s message? Laban seems honest with Jacob from the start, then tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, then honestly gives Rachel after the second seven year term, and then constantly connives to keep Jacob in his thrall from then on. He would rely on prevailing law (“‘The daughters are my daughters, and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that thou seest is mine'”) if God didn’t put fear of retribution in him (If he wasn’t familiar with God, why not just dismiss the dream?). That still doesn’t stop him from trying to deal by fear (“It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt.”). When Laban tries to cheat Jacob of the speckled, striped, and dark livestock, Jacob responds. It can be argued that Jacob cheated Laban in his own way; Laban was the instigator and suffered consequences for his actions. Isn’t this what Hosea is warning us about? Actions have consequences, and idolatry leads to negative actions that have negative consequences?

Can the same be said of Jacob? He loves Rachel to the point of distraction. This is admirable, but scorning Leah is not, though the situation is complex. Did Jacob idolize Rachel? Was this why he was tricked into marrying Leah? Was Leah, and her good fortune childbearing, supposed to be a reminder to Jacob? Was God jealous of Rachel, and Jacob’s love for her, for His own sake?

“‘Lo, it is yet high day’…While he was yet speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep…And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept.” I interpret high day to mean noon. Who did Jacob lift his voice up to? God, or Rachel? Taken with the previous paragraph, is this part of the reason why Mincha is preferably recited in the afternoon, rather than at noon? Was Jacob so overcome with joy that he briefly forgot his previous vow? I can see this as the case if Jacob “lifted up his voice” for Rachel and not God, though this challenges my ideas of God smiling on pure joy.

I think it interesting that Hosea singles out “‘They that sacrifice men kiss calves.'” The threat of wholesale disappearance, rather than suffering and punishment, is singled out for them.

Why does the English text capitalize “the God of Nahor” in the phrase “The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us.” Hertz explains that Jacob swears by “the Fear of his father Isaac” out of a refusal to swear by other gods. But, here, the “god” of Nahor is referred to as “God” in a similar fashion to Avot. In fact, the Hebrew states “Elohei Avraham, vEilohei Nahor.” What does this mean?

5771 Toldot

In Genesis on December 13, 2010 at 4:04 am

Why is such emphasis placed on Jacob duping Esau? I appreciate that, in these times, the possessions of the father passed to the first born son. He is still underhanded here. Why is it necessary that he is so? Why does Rebekah encourage the behavior? It is said later that Esau’s choice of wives pained her, but is this even an issue at this point in the narrative? Hertz says that the birthright was not physical or material but spiritual, that the firstborn acted as the priest, that Esau’s behavior did not demonstrate he valued this position, and that Jacob was in fact testing Esau, not tricking him. Why does this ring apologetic? Why do we go to lengths to validate these kinds of actions?

Why does Isaac repeat Abram’s deception, passing his wife Rebekah off as his sister to Abimelech in Gerar? What purpose does it serve here? Abram was rightly concerned for his life: Pharoah displays incredulousness but no sympathy to Abram for his act. Abimelech, on the other hand, is conciliatory, and seems to have meant no ill towards Isaac before or after the fact. Indeed, he pursues a peace treaty after the fact. Why then does Isaac deceive Abimelech? Is this simply a case of like father like son? Or is something else at work here? I don’t want to think it was for the material gain.

Why does Isaac bless Jacob twice? And why does Isaac deny Esau the second blessing, perhaps the most important blessing of the two, the designation of Jacob as inheritor of the God’s covenant with Abraham? In the first instance, Jacob is dressed as Esau. Isaac feels something is wrong, but blesses Jacob anyway. When Esau confronts Isaac, he blames Jacob, saying he came by guile and stole Esau’s blessing. Is Isaac’s blessing for Esau really helpful? How do we know Isaac did not know that Esau would rebel against Jacob? If he loved Esau that much, wouldn’t he know his moods? Wouldn’t it have been more helpful to bestow Jacob’s second blessing on Esau? Isaac tells us that blessing was not for Esau, that it was for Jacob. Was it attached to the first blessing? Or was it always intended for Jacob in Isaac’s mind? If the first blessing was originally meant for Esau, and the second was originally meant for Jacob, why not switch the two because of Jacob’s deception?

Is it possible Isaac and Rebekah favored Jacob, that Isaac was always the favored son? The Torah states that Esau’s taking of Hittite wives, idolaters, was a source of bitterness to Rebekah and Isaac, not just Rebekah. Then the Torah immediately embarks on this narrative, the second “duping” of Esau. Why? Is Isaac setting Esau up with material well-being before issuing the covenantal inheritance to Jacob? Where Abraham asked for God’s blessing for Ishmael and Isaac, to ensure Ishmael was taken care of, was Isaac’s intention similar for Esau? Or, did Isaac want to be tricked? If Jacob is the intended beneficiary of God’s promises, why does this exchange even matter?

The theme of the Haftorah prophet, Malachi, seems to be proper kavannah in priestly acceptance of sacrifices. The end of the Haftorah emphasizes the importance of the priest in guiding people properly. He exhorts the priests to glorify God’s name. Although I still feel Hertz’ passage is apologetic, he does have a point here: can someone who would so lightly give up this role be trusted with it in the first place? I ask back: could someone who gained such a role by graft be trusted with it any better?

Why couldn’t Esau and Jacob both be chosen? God says:

Two nations are in thy womb,
And two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels;
And the one people shall be stronger than the other people,
And the elder shall serve the younger.

This seems a clear choosing of Jacob on the face of it. Esau came from the womb first, Jacob was second. The remainder of the portion bears this out. Jacob won the birthright and inheritance of the clan, including Esau’s servitude. Esau marched on Jacob with a superior force. From this perspective, the prophecy is given and fulfilled. There are some ambiguities though. Can we say that Esau was truly born first? Jacob was born holding onto Esau’s heel. Does this mean they were born at the same time? Also, who took the first breath? Isn’t it said that, from a Jewish perspective, life begins with the first breath? Who truly breathed, that is, lived, first? Esau? Or Jacob? We do not know. Who is “the elder” and “the younger”? We do not know either. Is it clear who is stronger than the other? In Vayishlach, Jacob won a fight with a “heavenly being.” This seems pretty strong to me. Who serves who? Isaac awards Jacob with Esau’s servitude. Jacob is servile to Esau later, presenting gifts like tribute and calling Esau “my lord.” The passage ends with “the elder shall serve the younger” and not “the elder shall serve the younger forever.” This is important, because this means the lot of the elder may be to serve the younger, but not forever. The second half of the prophecy is fulfilled in both directions and is impermanent. Isn’t Esau’s primacy defined equally with Jacob’s? Aren’t they both chosen?