Shabbat Tetzaveh: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

At the very end of our parashat hashavua this week we find this instruction about the altar we are making for a way to focus communication with HaShem:

לֹא־תַעֲל֥וּ עָלָ֛יו קְטֹ֥רֶת זָרָ֖ה וְעֹלָ֣ה וּמִנְחָ֑ה וְנֵ֕סֶךְ לֹ֥א תִסְּכ֖וּ עָלָֽיו׃

You shall not offer alien incense on it, or a burnt offering or a meal offering; neither shall you pour a libation on it. (Exodus 30.9)

“Alien” is not defined, but that doesn’t stop every organized religion, and every other coherent system of human belonging, to spend a great deal of time determining the boundaries between what’s in and out – and who is in, and who is out.

To our great detriment as a species, influences on our makeup beyond our conscious control have led us to violate the greatest of all mitzvot – that of honoring the Other as equally made in the divine Image – in ways that embarrass and confound us, once the scales fall from our eyes.

“It’s written in the Torah” is, as every learning Jew knows, not a basis for Jewish ethical behavior. The Torah is more correctly seen as part of a much larger conversation that the Jewish people has been having, and will continue to have, as a people that follows a particular spiritual path. 

If we go no further than the surface meaning of the Torah, our understanding of what is Jewish and who we are is terribly narrowed down and impoverished. We are left believing that our tradition is shallow and inhumane, when in truth there is nothing more passionate and courageous than good deep Torah Study.

And there is no group more willing to ask questions of our own assumptions and truths than learning Jews, neither today nor in the past. We see indications of this throughout the Talmud. For example, many of us assume that the notion of a spectrum of gender identity is a new idea; in reality, it is an idea that is being re-discovered, rather like the works of the ancient Greeks had to be rediscovered in medieval Al Andalus after being lost in the ignorance fostered by European Christianity’s animus toward anything alien to its teachings.

Indeed: our Talmud is aware of and has terminology for eight separate genders, and deals at length with how each exists as part of Jewish society. None are considered alien, or, worse, morally wrong. Rather, our tradition regards each kind of human being as equally precious and equally to be respected: 

“There are many with me” (Psalm 55.19) and who are they? They are the angels that watch over people. Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi said: an entourage of angels always walks in front of people, with messengers calling out “make way for the Image of the blessed holy One!” (Devarim Rabbah, Re’eh 4)

The xenophobia currently rampant in U.S. discourse demonstrates the danger of defining too much that one encounters as “alien” and therefore wrong or bad; much is being lost in the ignorance fostered in our own day, including our own sense of safety. Torah leaves the term alien undefined here, and everywhere else the term exists; it’s up to us to join the rich learning conversation that explores the intersection of textual encounter and living teachings.

This week the Torah begins with a passage that has become famous for its use in building campaigns throughout the Jewish world:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם

V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham

Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25.8)

Our parashah is called Terumah, “gift.” The verse above is ideal for an egalitarian fundraiser because the concept is that all of us are to bring that which is our own unique gift to the building of the common sacred space – and because that gift is to be freely given, a gift of the heart.

But we’re not ready for that verse, and all that it implies, yet. (Turns out that the Israelites weren’t either.) This is why: if you look at our communal trajectory, we are not yet a group settled into a space. We are just beginning to arrive there, and we are arriving in stages – like our ancestors, in waves: some who have been using the space for some time now, and others who have yet to enter it. Some still limping from the effect of the crossing of the Sea, others unnerved by the very nature of change, and all recovering from the trauma of Egyptian slavery.

We have crossed over, and now we have work to do: the same work that the Israelites now need to do. Not the building of sacred space – that will come, but not only through the successful ingathering of gifts that secures the roof over our heads. The work upon us now is indicated by the next couple of parshiyot, in which we begin to build, only to be distracted by the unfinished business of clarifying and cohering, not the floor plan, but the shared essence of those who are doing the building.

The gifted Torah commentator Aviva Zornberg follows earlier interpreters of this section of Torah in suggesting that it is placed here out of order, to obscure a deeper truth; that, in reality, the Israelites’ traumatized experience of terror led to murderous dysfunction, all out of proportion to the actual danger they were in. 

Just as for the ancient Israelites, our exercise of building the sacred space can only truly take place when each of us listens to our hearts:

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כׇּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

Tell the Israelite people to bring gifts; you shall accept gifts from every person whose heart so moves (Exodus 25.2)

Our hearts are, at the very least, distracted. After so many months of so many plagues – COVID-19, then the vaccination, then the Delta variant, then a few months of what we thought was oftentimes, then the Omicron variant, all against a background of climate urgency, housing emergency, and social unrest, until we come to realize that there will not be an “after”, not anytime soon…..

Like the ancient Israelites who were suddenly surrounded by trackless wilderness, full of real dangers, the society we live in has turned frightening: from Pittsburgh to Poway to Colleyville, those of us who thought we were safe have realized we are not. The myth of individualism leaves us lonely and vulnerable when what we need is to be able to trust in and rely on each other in meaningful Jewish community – and we barely know what that is, or feel that we have the strength to act toward it, some days. We are having a difficult time, and we tend to take it out on each other.

We have only begun to face the reality of what it means to be a community that can build a truly sacred space. We have a lot of building to do to be the community we can be. Thankfully, it is full of those who are already showing the path, through their compassion and steadiness. May their lights shine bright for the rest of us, reassuring us and showing us the way toward peace within, even in a time when peace without is so far away.

אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם

Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. (Pirke Avot 4.1)

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.