Pittsburgh, Poway, Colleyville

When Shabbat ended yesterday I saw what riveted the Jewish community in the U.S. and Israel all day: the entry of a human being, suffering from anger and in misery, into a shul during Shabbat livestream prayers. He held the human beings he found hostage all day. The day ended with all hostages safe and the hostage taker dead, regrettably but not surprisingly.

This is a fact: being Jewish brings a measure of insecurity. Being part of an organized Jewish gathering place such as a shul can put one in danger. For those of us whose forebears turned to the United States as a place where they and their children would be safe from the persecutions we fled in Europe, these days are bitterly disappointing.

It is only human for us to react by seeking to secure, even augment, our safety. This is as natural and as necessary as is a COVID-19 mask. The way we react as Jews is more nuanced: how to keep the doors of our compassion open, and our hearts awake and aware. 

Yes, it makes sense to enhance our doors. Yes, we must be thoughtful in our signage or other indications of who’s inside. But we must not delude ourselves that we can circle the wagons and never have to be afraid again. 

What we have learned through the pandemic is useful here: even when we are as careful as we know how to be, we can never be completely safe. All we can be is conscious of how our acts accord, or not, with the highest, deepest and best we mean to be as thoughtful and ethical Jews. We cannot avoid fear; all we can do is to be afraid together, carefully, with awareness; we can deliberately choose to continue to lead with love, not with fear.

Synagogues go out of our way to care for each human being who comes within the light we shine so brightly, of love and belonging and compassion. I am confident that we will continue to shine that light, in ways that will secure us in the knowledge that we may not ever be entirely safe in the world, but we have always acted in accord with our best Jewish ethics as we thoughtfully consider each situation that arises.

with love and with hope as another week begins, shavua tov.

Shabbat BeShalakh: What It Takes To Get Across the Sea

Evil consists in ruining someone else’s life rather than examine one’s own. – M Scott Peck, People of the Lie

As we follow Torah’s narrative of the Israelite escape from Egypt, this week’s parashah relates a tense, utterly human moment. It’s the well-known sense that often sets in immediately after one takes an irrevocable step, that the step was absolutely wrong.

And so it is with our ancestors as they head out of Egypt. The land is ruined by plagues, the first born is dead in every house, and a panicked motley group of slaves is stumbling forward into the unknown. 

Almost immediately, they reach the Sea of Reeds. 

וַיִּרְדְּפ֨וּ מִצְרַ֜יִם אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיַּשִּׂ֤יגוּ אוֹתָם֙ חֹנִ֣ים עַל־הַיָּ֔ם כׇּל־סוּס֙ רֶ֣כֶב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וּפָרָשָׁ֖יו וְחֵיל֑וֹ

the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea

וּפַרְעֹ֖ה הִקְרִ֑יב וַיִּשְׂאוּ֩ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶ֜ם וְהִנֵּ֥ה מִצְרַ֣יִם ׀ נֹסֵ֣עַ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיִּֽירְאוּ֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַיִּצְעֲק֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out. (Exodus 14.9-10)

Death – or, at the very least, the complete failure of what they thought was their way to freedom, seems to be staring them in the face. What does this group of people do? They do what most frightened people do: they turned on their leaders.

According to a famous midrash, the People of Israel not only attacked their leadership for the move, they also attacked anyone who tried to take steps to deal with the situation at hand. When Hashem said to Moshe, “Tell the people to go forward (into the Sea)”

זֶה אוֹמֵר אֵין אֲנִי יוֹרֵד תְּחִילָּה לַיָּם וְזֶה אוֹמֵר אֵין אֲנִי יוֹרֵד תְּחִילָּה לַיָּם קָפַץ נַחְשׁוֹן בֶּן עַמִּינָדָב וְיָרַד לַיָּם תְּחִילָּה

this [tribe] said, “I will not be the first to go down to the sea,” and this one said, “I will not be the first to go down to the sea.” 

As they argued among themselves about this next step (apparently even when HaShem says it will be okay, Jews have always reserved the right to doubt!) they literally attacked anyone who attempted to go forward in fulfillment of HaShem’s urging, by pelting them with stones. At this point, all seemed lost. But then:

Then Nachshon ben Aminadav sprang forward and went down first to the sea….(BT South 37a)

We all know how the story ends; the act of faith of plunging into the Sea itself causes the Sea to part, even as we have seen in our own lives how reality can be shaped by one courageous act. Yes, stepping forward is frightening even when it seems to be the only way. The question that remains is why some would rather stay sunk in anger, in despair and in fear, rather than hold hands and take a scary step together.

A rather sobering midrash asserts that only one-fifth of the Israelites left Egypt with Moshe. The rest, majority voice though they be, are never heard from again. On this Shabbat of Martin Luther King Jr day and Tu B’Shevat 5782, we’ll lift up the inspiration of the Nakhshons of our knowing – those who step forward into the unknown because it is the only way to walk away from what enslaves us. It is in their visionary steps that we find our own way toward all that spring means.

Shabbat Bo: “Come” to Pharaoh

“The self is not built to carry its own weight.” Social psychologist Roy Baumeister

Our parashat hashavua is Bo, literally “come.” As we read at the beginning of the parashah:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה 

VaYomer HaShem el Moshe, “Bo el Par’oh.”

HaShem said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh.”

The word bo is the singular present tense imperative “come.” It is interesting to note, said the Kotzker Rebbi, that the Torah here uses bo and not lekh, “go.” One would expect “go” – “Go to Pharaoh and say to him….” which we’ve seen many times at this point in the narrative.

The Kotzker continues: It seems that HaShem is saying to Moshe, “come with Me and I will be with you.”

It is not unlike the way we address each other. A friend, a loved one, a companion in study, shares with you their difficulty or their need. You can say “go do this.” Or, if you are able, you can say “come, I’ll be with you, let’s do it together.” Just as HaShem did.

In the Talmud, and in the later development of Jewish ethics as a genre, we are encouraged to see HaShem as our role model.

לְהַלֵּךְ אַחַר מִדּוֹתָיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מָה הוּא מַלְבִּישׁ עֲרוּמִּים דִּכְתִיב וַיַּעַשׂ ה׳ אֱלֹהִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ כׇּתְנוֹת עוֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם אַף אַתָּה הַלְבֵּשׁ עֲרוּמִּים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בִּיקֵּר חוֹלִים דִּכְתִיב וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה׳ בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא אַף אַתָּה בַּקֵּר חוֹלִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא נִיחֵם אֲבֵלִים דִּכְתִיב וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אַבְרָהָם וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ אַף אַתָּה נַחֵם אֲבֵלִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא קָבַר מֵתִים דִּכְתִיב וַיִּקְבֹּר אוֹתוֹ בַּגַּי אַף אַתָּה קְבוֹר מֵתִים

One should follow the attributes of the Holy Blessed One: 

HaShem clothes the naked, as it is written: “HaShem made for the humans garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. 

The Holy Blessed One visits the sick, as it is written “HaShem appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. 

The Holy Blessed One consoles mourners, as it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that HaShem blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. 

The Holy Blessed One buries the dead, as it is written: “HaShem buried Moshe in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.

In all these examples we see that the root of Jewish meaning is in our kindness toward each other, the kindness to come with, rather than to say I think you should go. The greatest holy act that Jewish tradition can imagine is not the once in a lifetime splitting of the Sea – although that is a good thing when needed – but rather the daily small acts affirming that we belong to each other.

We’re not meant to be individuals without the embracing context of community; we don’t know how to do life alone. Come, let’s do it together.

Shabbat Shemot: Do you Know your Name?

What makes you cry out?

Why has much of the Jewish educational establishment been so concerned about the possibility of Jews joining in the U.S. celebration of Christmas? There are some good reasons. 

For many generations of Jewish exile, Christmas was a mortally dangerous time. Hatred of Jews was used throughout medieval Europe as a way of redirecting peasant frustration from exploitation by lords and church toward an easier, unifying condemnation of the people who “killed Jesus”. No one whose Jewish identity carries the epigenetic trauma marker of Christian-inspired crusades and pogroms can be expected to react with equanimity and understanding when informed that the Portland Public School board has declared Christmas trees to be neutral holiday symbols.

Jewish educators and rabbis have often been cast in the role of disapproving gatekeepers, disapproving of any syncretism and distributing books with titles like “There is no such thing as a Hanukkah bush”. Parents can feel caught between wanting to respond to their children’s sense of being left out of a great big party to which only they have not been invited, and the sense that Jewish establishment that will disapprove of any social compromise a Jewish parent might feel they need to make – often remembering their own feelings as a child feeling left out.

Our ancestors are living in Egypt for 400 years by the time the book of Shemot, which we read this Shabbat, begins. It started well, under the protection of a regime that was shaped and ruled over by an Israelite. But in the famous line that augurs a sea change, there arose a king who knew not Joseph (Exodus 1.8). 

Suddenly the Jewish people, which had participated in Egyptian life thinking they were at home and equal, were targeted and set apart. Now they were not Egyptians, but Jews, and their situation deteriorated rapidly. 

We read in the Torah that HaShem appears to Moshe in the famous bush that was burning and was not consumed, and in the first meeting says 


I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their cry because of their taskmasters (Exodus 3.7)

The ancient midrashic musings upon this moment ask why it took so long. Why were the Israelites crushed by slavery for generation after generation? Why is it that now, finally, HaShem “marks” this suffering?

The answer is in the verse itself: the Israelites were crying out for relief. They gave voice to their misery – because they finally realized that they were insupportably miserable. They became aware of it.

The enforced exposure to Christmas is not comparable to slavery, of course not: except in one way. To feel the discomfort of it is to be aware of the fact that one is not Christian, that one is Jewish and that one’s identity is not recognized in the holiday onslaught.

It must be noted that for Jews, as a small minority of the population, Christmas is pretty overwhelming. The majority culture, here as well as elsewhere, presumes the public spaces to be theirs to decorate and to infuse with their holiday’s songs, food and visuals. Schools run Christmas plays, pageants and other required gatherings. Some Jews who have extreme doctrinal differences with Chabad nevertheless take great satisfaction from the giant in-your-face Hanukkah menorahs that group often erects alongside public Christmas trees.

There’s no cure for a child – or an adult – feeling left out, unless the child has so much richness in their life already that they can feel the discomfort of an identity being unrecognized. Children in Israel have no Christmas envy, because they have fully realized identity rituals such as Pesakh (Hanukkah is a minor holiday, celebrated, like Purim in Israel, mostly as a children’s thing).

Rabbis and educators aren’t gatekeepers, and they shouldn’t be put in that position. They don’t stand between a Jew and a Jew’s life, or conscience. Each of us decides, under the pressure of the majority community, what hurts and what doesn’t. Only those who become aware of it and cry out will be rescued from their oppression.

Kings who don’t know Joseph will come and go. The question that remains for us is, do we?

Shabbat VaYehi: Death and Love

It is far easier to talk about loss than it is to talk about love. It is easier to articulate the pain of love’s absence than to describe its presence and meaning in our lives. – bell hooks

I believe profoundly in the power of Torah learning to help us deepen our spiritual grounding and help us navigate our way through the challenges of our lives. This week, the learning is about death.

Our parashat hashavua opens with the death of Jacob and closes with the death of Joseph. Immersing ourselves in the learning of this parashah as we do every year in the depth of the darkest days of the year, Torah invites us to take advantage of the emotional doorway opened by long nights to overcome whatever reluctance we may have to confront this inescapable aspect of each of our lives.

“This too is Torah, and I need to learn it” – my own motto for approaching life – was first spoken by Rabbi Akiba, a Second Temple era sage who understood that Jews may gain vital insights for meaningful Jewish life from almost anywhere. The great bell hooks, who died this week, is my special Torah learning conduit for this parashah. Her musings upon love can help us articulate the innermost truth of our lives.

Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure. In the realm of the political, among the religious, in our families, and in our romantic lives, we see little indication that love informs decisions, strengthens our understanding of community, or keeps us together. This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise. – bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, 2000

In our parashat hashavua, the children of this large family, our ancestors by whom we call ourselves the People of Israel, face each other in the moment of the death of Jacob. Not only the patriarch of the family, he is the weaver of the common cloth of their varied lives. His death brings them together to face their source and each other, their past and their doings. 

This deathbed scene is a moment of truth for each of them, and significantly unpleasant for some of the siblings, because the truth of their lives is brought forth and magnified. This is always possible and often true: when a loved one dies who is central to our sense of self, we are brought up against the truth of our lives in what may be a disturbing, even shocking way.

Death comes; all those we love will die, some before us, and some after us. We, too, will die, each of us, leaves dropping one by one from the Tree of Life, following no rhythm or rhyme that we can detect. 

The death of a parent is epochal. Jacob’s children are left to look at themselves and each other in a different way, with a new sense of agency. Will their lives change? Will the loss of the parental love – however it manifested itself there is always that expectation from the child – allow them to learn what it meant, and what love means in their lives and their acts? Will you?

learn more about death here – The Alef Bet of Death: Dying As A Jew

Shabbat VaYigash: Stick Together

וְדַבֵּ֣ר אֲלֵיהֶ֗ם כֹּֽה־אָמַר֮ אֲדֹנָ֣י ה’ הִנֵּ֨ה אֲנִ֤י לֹקֵ֙חַ֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מִבֵּ֥ין הַגּוֹיִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר הָֽלְכוּ־שָׁ֑ם וְקִבַּצְתִּ֤י אֹתָם֙ מִסָּבִ֔יב וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם אֶל־אַדְמָתָֽם׃

Declare to them: This word is holy. The Israelite people will be gathered from among the nations they have gone to, from every corner of the world, and they will come to their own land – Ezekiel 37.21

The parashat hashavua, the parashah for this week, is VaYigash, in which we read the denouement of the Joseph story. The opening scene is dramatic: brother squaring off against brother, neither knowing the full truth of the other’s lived experience. Joseph uses his power to push his brothers to decide the fate of one of them, and Judah finds it within himself to respond with courage and selflessness.

It’s fascinating to consider this story within the larger political context in which it would have been told, and that is what the prophet Ezekiel does in his own day. Consider Ezekiel’s situation: exiled with the refugees from the Babylonian destruction of Israel, he has pitched his tent along the river K’var with the other houseless Israelite wanderers. They are in shock; they are dispirited; they wonder if this is the end of the line for the people of Israel. Ezekiel – whose name, יחזקאל Yekhez’k-El, means “G*d will give strength” – brings his prophecy into this time of terrible despair and hopelessness.

The Israelite prophets were good pedagogues; they often used a visual aid to support their teaching. Ezekiel uses two sticks:

וְאַתָּ֣ה בֶן־אָדָ֗ם קַח־לְךָ֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֔ד וּכְתֹ֤ב עָלָיו֙ לִֽיהוּדָ֔ה וְלִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חברו [חֲבֵרָ֑יו] וּלְקַח֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֔ד וּכְת֣וֹב עָלָ֗יו לְיוֹסֵף֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶפְרַ֔יִם וְכָל־בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חברו [חֲבֵרָֽיו׃]

And you, O mortal, take a stick and write on it, “Of Judah and the Israelites associated with him”; and take another stick and write on it, “Of Joseph—the stick of Ephraim—and all the House of Israel associated with him.”

וְקָרַ֨ב אֹתָ֜ם אֶחָ֧ד אֶל־אֶחָ֛ד לְךָ֖ לְעֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֑ד וְהָי֥וּ לַאֲחָדִ֖ים בְּיָדֶֽךָ׃

Bring them close to each other, so that they become one stick, joined together in your hand.

(Ezekiel 37.16-17)

In his hands Ezekiel brings together a stick with the word Judah carved upon it, and another with the word Joseph upon it. He holds them together and demonstrates how much stronger they are together than each one is held separately.

This is classic Israelite prophecy. It does not foresee the future, but seeks to understand the moral impact of the past, and in that way to offer guidance toward future acts. The two sticks represent the two kingdoms of Israel that formed as a result of an ancient political and social sundering of family ties. Unlike the brothers of the Torah story, who repair their breach, the two kingdoms have gone their separate ways, and, ironically, it is only in their destruction are the people again united in a common path – and a shared misery.

Ezekiel’s prophecy in essence is still relevant, for it reminds us that we are not as strong as individuals as we are in community. Even when we, like those ancient Israelite exiles, sit by the river called “K’var” (literally “that which has been”) and mourn that which we’ve suffered, without a clear sense of the way forward, we can find strength with each other. And as Ezekiel’s name itself encourages us, we will be stronger together to face whatever will come.

Shabbat VaYishlakh: How To Give

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר עֵשָׂ֖ו יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽךְ׃

Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.”

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֗ב אַל־נָא֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ מִנְחָתִ֖י מִיָּדִ֑י כִּ֣י עַל־כֵּ֞ן רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַתִּרְצֵֽנִי׃

But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. (Bereshit 33.9-10)

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are once again this year occurring unusually close to each other in the Western calendar. Such is the possibility when our lives are regulated by both the solar and lunar calendars, one for our secular lives, and one for our spiritual. As Jews, we know that our Jewish identity is sufficiently robust when we become uncomfortably aware of the clash between the demands of the two. Thus it has ever been for Jews living in Exile, with a foot planted in each of two very different worlds, and the daily demand upon us is to consider what the balance might look like today.

Both of these holidays are also considered to be a time for giving. The excess of Thanksgiving consumption, both of food and “holiday sales” items, years ago led to the response we call “Giving Tuesday”. Hanukkah, on the other hand, is not traditionally focused upon gifts, but upon gratitude for survival against the odds. The gift giving aspect of Hanukkah has arisen in the West as a Jewish syncretism with the Western holiday of Christmas.

Jewish giving at its best is not holiday determined, nor timed for end of the year appeals, although we have learned to adapt as the majority culture around us does. Our parashat hashavua this week offers an interesting meditation upon modes of giving: Jacob gives lavish gifts to his brother Esau after many years of absence. Esau does not need them. Why does Jacob insist? What should Esau do?

The traditional commentaries are interested in Jacob’s motivation. Both Ibn Ezra and Shnei Lukhot haBrit hold that we are to read the Torah exactly as written: 

כִּֽי־אָמַ֞ר אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה פָנָ֗יו בַּמִּנְחָה֙ הַהֹלֶ֣כֶת לְפָנָ֔י וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי׃

For he reasoned, “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.” (Bereshit 32.21)

Jacob here clearly hopes to soften any anger Esau might still feel toward him as a result of Jacob’s betrayal of his brother twenty years before. This is the gift given “with strings.”

We who follow the Jewish tradition of Torah Study consider the ethics of the situation. Here the great Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, guides us clearly and completely with his explanation of the mitzvah of giving found in his Matanot l’Evyonim 10 

  • We are obligated to be careful about the mitzvah of giving, for it is of supreme importance
  • A person is never impoverished through giving
  • Anyone who ignores the chance to give is called a barbarian (b’liya’al – “wicked”, also possibly “one who has no lift upward in the soul”)
  • One who gives with bad grace has destroyed the merit of the gift
  • The reward of one who compels others to give is greater than the one who gives
  • There are eight levels of giving; the highest is to help someone no longer need help
  • One who sustains those that one is not obligated to sustain is considered righteous
  • The poor and vulnerable should be part of our household
  • Those who lie about needing help will not die without coming to that place of need

What is Jacob doing? Probably as much from guilt as from fear, he is trying to achieve balance between what he took from Esau many years ago and what he can give now. Judging him l’khaf zekhut, with the benefit of the doubt, we can see ourselves in a similar emotional situation, perhaps, when we give to those who have less than us.

What is Esau doing? From the evidence of the Torah text itself, he is the soul of graciousness. He does not need to accept, yet the giver needs to give. 

To learn from Esau is to understand that it is sometimes a gift to let someone give you something, even if you do not need it. And to learn from Jacob is to know that sometimes, when gift, giver and given aligns in grace, we are able to see, a bit more clearly, the Face of acceptance, of forgiveness, of love.

The act of balancing is to consider both the needs of the giver and the receiver; both the inner motivation and the communal obligation; and, in our case, both the Western social expectation and the Jewish teaching.

May you learn to give, in this season and every season, in the path of righteousness, and may it lift you up.

Shabbat VaYetze: Whence Antisemitism?

מַאי ״הַר סִינַי״? הַר שֶׁיָּרְדָה שִׂנְאָה לְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם עָלָיו

What is “Sinai”? To indicate that from there, hatred – sin’ah – descended.
– Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 89a

We have been following the story of Ya’akov / Jacob now for long enough to recognize that he is no saint. Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Torah is that it is not a hagiography, not a “Lives of the Saints” describing those humans who seem to be perfect in thought and action, whom we are expected to admire and emulate. No, Ya’akov is all too human, from his name – Hebrew for “heel” – to his youthful willingness to betray his brother.

In the latter part of parashat VaYetze, which we read in this third year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading (an ancient minhag but not widely followed among Jews in the U.S.) we find a different Ya’akov. He is older, he has wives and children to support, and has been working for his father in law Laban for twenty years. It is Laban who has taught Jacob what it means to be on the other side of deceit; Laban who in this parashah speaks of love and concern but only displays such feelings toward himself.

Jacob serves his father in law as shepherd, guarding the flocks and ensuring their welfare. He and Laban enter an agreement that all the speckled and striped sheep will be Jacob’s, as his payment. Laban then immediately removes all such sheep from the flock and has his sons take them far away to graze, thereby cheating Jacob of his pay. Jacob, however, knows a shepherd’s trick, and he causes the offspring of the sheep in his care to bring forth “streaked, spotted and speckled young.” (Bereshit 30.39).

In short, he outsmarts his father in law, who is trying to cheat him. But Laban’s sons find fault with him, in terms that seem to echo much later antisemitic accusations:

וַיִּשְׁמַ֗ע אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֤י בְנֵֽי־לָבָן֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לָקַ֣ח יַעֲקֹ֔ב אֵ֖ת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֑ינוּ וּמֵאֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֔ינוּ עָשָׂ֕ה אֵ֥ת כׇּל־הַכָּבֹ֖ד הַזֶּֽה׃

Now he heard the things that Laban’s sons were saying: “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from that which was our father’s he has built up all this wealth.” (Bereshit 31.1)

Then as now, the smart Jew is not admired, but accused of greed, selfishness, and deceit. 

Like any delusion, antisemitism cannot be reasoned with; it cannot be explained away nor demonstrated to be false. It is a blind lashing out, and all one can do is, as Jacob does, to become aware of it, and to take measures to keep oneself away from it. In Western democracies, we are fortunate to sometimes reach the ear of elected representatives who will further those measures.

Our ancestors do not understand the hatred for our people any more than we do, as our midrash (cited above) reflects. We know that many, many Jews have attempted to leave their Jewish identity behind; ironically, very often their descendants find their way to a shul, seeking the spiritual path their great grandparents gave up in their desperation to find a safe space to live.

The prophet Bil’am spoke words about us that remain true thousands of years later:

הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב

There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations (BaMidbar 23.9)

We can’t guarantee our safety as Jews; ironically, the times we live in have shown us that no one can do that. No one can guarantee peace, freedom, security… our only choice is how we will respond to whatever comes. And here is where being Jewish is a great support: our tradition teaches that every human being is a reflection of the divine image. Every moment of life is a gift. And every day is a blessing if we celebrate it as one.

If you were born into the Jewish people, or if you have found your way into belonging, doesn’t matter one iota to the antisemite. It shouldn’t matter to us either; we need every one of us to hold hands, as we step forward on our Jewish spiritual path together.

This is that path: to respond to baseless hatred by doing random acts of kindness, for it is kindness, along with study and prayer, that uphold the world. Smile at a stranger; give someone flowers for no reason; cultivate patience for others and yourself.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Toldot: What the World Needs Now

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.  – Dr Martin Luther King Jr. (1963)

וַיֶּאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו וְרִבְקָ֖ה אֹהֶ֥בֶת אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃

Isaac loved Esau *כי צידו לפיו and Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25.28)

Commentaries have long noted that it is in the story of Rebekah and Isaac that we first see the word ahavah, love, used in the Torah. Isaac is described as loving Rebekah in the context of their marriage:

וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ

[Isaac] loved [Rebekah] and thus found consolation after [the death of] his mother.

(Genesis 24.67)

We often reflect upon the life of Isaac in the passive, and pathetic, mode: the son of Abraham, who was nearly slaughtered in the violence engendered by his father’s vision. Yet the Torah has more to tell us about this person who is the first to be described as loving.

Where does love come from? What makes us able to love, and what makes us feel that we cannot? To ask these questions of ourselves we must first ask the eternal question of song and story: what is love? The answer, it turns out, depends on the culture. In Jewish tradition, love is not an emotion, caused by something outside of us, and affecting us. Love is, rather, a deliberate act of the intellect. 


You shall love HaShem your god with all you have – this verse from the first paragraph of the Shema is not a statement of emotional imperative. It is asking for your loyalty; it is summoning you to be All In on your path of belief and action. 


You shall love your neighbor as yourself – again, this is not a command about emotion, which is an unknown definition of the term for ancient Israelites. Judaism understands this mitzvah of the Torah to compel us to make sure that whatever we want for our own lives, we make sure is available to those with whom we share our lives and communities. 

Where does this lead us in our attempt to understand the nature of Isaac’s love? First, it is a depiction of a person whose response to unimaginable trauma is to refuse to let it define their life. Isaac is able to love; personally, to act in line with his loyalty, and second, as in Hillel’s famous formulation, to not do to someone else that which was done to him.

Anger is sometimes justified as a way to flush out the emotions from our system. But no one should dwell there. Love is what builds: family, community, and an integrated sense of self.

Isaac shows us that love does not indicate passivity. Love, in the Jewish sense of the term, fills you with power, not weakness; with a sense of purpose, not hopelessness. It is stronger than hate when it is a conscious choice which leads the heart toward generosity and openness. And in these difficult times, it may not save the day, as one more popular slogan puts it, but this choice will save the day – and our lives – from meaningless.


*for the grammar and critical edition geeks: this is a variant reading preserved in ancient manuscripts which makes more sense, and indicates that Esau brought his father game to eat.