Two Jacobs, One Yisrael – Vayetze

Leaving NYC in the height of its first seasonal snowstorm, we land in Oakland CA, where the sky is a hazy pinkish-white with air quality ranking “the worst in the world”. There’s a strong recommendation not to leave indoor spaces, especially not to “stam” walk outside; my friends ask for masks from NY because most hardware stores in NorCal are out; residents evacuate for the Sierra Foothills, Lake Tahoe and coastal areas. I sit and write about other people’s journeys and mishaps along the way.

Biblical Yaakov (Jacob) escapes from his brother who wants to kill him. What does it mean? Sure, Esau is angry, but kill his brother?? Jacob has taken what Esau has sold him earlier!! Wanting Jacob dead is perhaps symbolic of not accepting an either-or; not a world in which we’ll both live, even if different from each other, but a one way, “only I” solution. This scenario of a farmer, a man of the filed, fighting with his shepherd brother to death, should look familiar, and we’ll see another version of it in the stand-off between Joseph and his brothers. Luckily this time, we are open to a different solution.

Jacob leaves Be’er Sheva for Haran, and on the way, “hits the place” where he sleeps an sees a ladder, although the word “sulam” doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Torah and we can only imagine it from the text. It’s a thing that connects while not being grounded in either places, as indicated by the words “artza” and “shamayma”, “towards earth” and “towards heaven”, but not quite “there” in either one. It implies the need to “jump”, someplace along the way from one to the other, like squirrels who swing among the tree branches. Jacob has two names, which he continues to use interchangeably throughout his life; he marries two wives; and is able to live in two worlds, being our first forefather who opts to move to the galut, diaspora, then back to the Land of Israel. Yet, he’s the only one to have all his children become “The Children of Israel”.
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, he makes a covenant with Lavan, symbolic of the first time he does so, as a nation with another nation. Lavan, whose name means “white”, bidding farewell to Jacob just before the red sun will rise on him again, calls the place “Yegar Sahaduta”, in its Aramaic name, while Jacob calls is Gal’ed, in Hebrew. This might be parallel to the Pesach Hagada, which likewise we begin in Aramaic (“ha lachma anya” – הא לחמא עניא) and end in Hebrew (“Le’shana habaa bYirushalayim!” – לשנה הבאה בירושלים). The transition between Aramaic and Hebrew stands for the transition between exile-living and redemption גולה – גאולה. The ability to switch between languages is an expression of the ability to live in more than one world. This all might be reminiscent of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, and those who revived the Hebrew language around the same time that the recent galut began to end. This is Jacob, and this is his gift to us too. We too are invited day how to live – and thrive – in more than one world.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Next up, “the future”

Last week Yitzchak (Isaac) brought Rivkah (Rebecca) into his mother’s tent in what seems to be a sweet gesture:
ויבאה יצחק האהלה שרה אמו ויקח את־רבקה ותהי־לו לאשה ויאהבה וינחם יצחק אחרי אמו
Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.
On the surface, so lovely: The newly arrived bride has come to replace his beloved, recently deceased mother. But a second look begs the question: Is that really what’s going on here? According to the midrash, Sarah dies in conjunction with Yitzchak’s Binding, which happens three years before Rivkah’s appearance on the scene. When Rivkah arrives, Yitzchak is at “Be’er Lachai Ro’ee” (Genesis 24:62) which is actually where Hagar and Yishma’el live! Why does Yitzchak bring Rivkah to the late Sarah’s tent? For someone who says so little, what is he trying to say?
I have often played with the idea of a book called (something like) ‘our forefathers and foremothers on the therapist’s couch’…. Indeed, from a psychologist’s perspective, Yitzchak might have had a troubled childhood: his dad torn between the handmaid who bore him his oldest (beloved) son and his mom, the one who schleps him up the mountain with nothing but a knife and wood for the fire (chap.22); his taunting, though only, brother; his overly protective mother… no wonder he’s slightly shell-shocked, maybe suffering from PTSD, the glistening knife blinding his eyes…
The Kabbalists also point out that Yitzchak is a momma-boy, not because she protects him, coddles him and keeps bad influences away from her ‘little darling long-awaited for baby’, but because, as we’ve seen, a careful read reveals that he is really – “her child”. Sarah is the one who’s din in that relationship; she’s the one who calls Yitzchak “my son”, as Avraham calls Yishma’el “his son”. Avraham is all chesed, kindness and endless compassion; Yitzchak, like Sarah, is din, or gevura – judgment and strength, a quality who’s role it is to limit endless giving and too much generosity (and yes, there is such a thing to be too good, too giving, too much sugar). She’s the one who asks Avraham to be a “judge” (between her and Hagar), a task he (Avraham) is not naturally suited for.
No wonder Yitzchak’s wife is all chesed, like Avraham. When we read the story of how she cares for the stranger and his camels at the well (chap 24), we are struck by her similarity to Abraham, as he cares for his guests (chap 18), and the text uses similar verbs (like “rushing”) to make sure we don’t miss it. See?! Endless kindness!! The perfect match to the Avrahamic family!!
Perhaps when Yitzchak brings her into the tent he actually says, chesed is great but this way of life is much more nuanced; more is needed. We are the heirs of chesed along with din and gevura, and our child will have to be that. As the years go by, Rivkah is no longer the “all out” little girl who runs with her pitcher to the well endlessly, but a mature woman, who can keep a secret, who can manipulate a situation, who can love, but care very differently for both her sons. It is in that sense, perhaps, that he brings her into Sarah’s tent (and not Avraham’s), to let her know, that there is more.
Their relationship, in turn, is different from that of their parents. I can see him, walking in the field, figuring out how they are going to do it “right”. There’s going to be no handmaid, only long prayers with the only one, beloved wife. There’s going to be one child – one “perfect” (tam- תם) child. But G-d in His infinite wisdom and sense of humor, says, you too will have two children, and the birthright will have to be sorted out again, that’s how we get to this week’s reading.
When the twins are born, Yitzchak loves Esau, and Rivkah – loves Yaakov. Esau’s name shares its letters with “asui” – עשוי = עשיו, complete, done – what you see is what you get. Yaakov’s name comes from follower, also crooked (והיה העקב למישור). Yitzchak loves Esau “for there’s hunting in his mouth” (Genesis 25:28); Esau is worldly and capable, often called the “gadol”, the big one. Rivkah loves Yaakov, “the little one” for no obviously stated reason. Yet. Yaakov is smooth, as if “not done” yet, implying the need to grow, to move from “crooked” to “straight” (yashar – like yis’ra-el), and at times to be able to hold both. In all that, Rivkah “gets it”. She therefore brings a new dimension which Yitzchak, the boys almost sacrificed and now blind, so badly needs: not only her endless kindness and boldness, but a daring belief in the unknown, the hidden, the potential; an ability to see – and believe- in the “future”.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rivkah going to inquire of G-d – by Ahuva Klein
רבקה הולכת לדרוש אלוהים – אהובה קליין

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In the Land of Yitzchak & Yishma’el

This week’s reading, Chayey Sarah – “The Life of Sarah”, opens with Sarah’s death, and Abraham seeking to purchase for her a burial place, achuzat kever. Rabbi Hirsch (19th century Germany) shares a beautiful explanation, and so he writes:
“To interpret “achuza” as “property”, because the object is held – ne’echaz (which is from same root as achuza) is a mistaken interpretation. Achuza refers exclusively to land property, which is precisely what cannot be held. Further, in the instances the verb is used, the object (i.e. the land) is not held by tis owner but rather – the owner is held by the object…. Land holds its owner, and he is bound in its chains… This is also the reason why a person cannot take an oath on the land. This is because land outlines the person; the person is subordinate to the land rather than the land being subordinate to the person. Hence, he cannot subordinate the existence of the soil to the truth of his word”…
Likewise, Abraham wants a permanent place in the land, a place that will stay in the family long after he is gone. A place, that is not so much for her, as it is for him and future generations.
Interestingly, kever, the Hebrew word for grave, is the same word the Talmud uses for womb. Is it the hint for things that are deeply hidden? The end that is also a chance for a new beginning?
Abraham too will die at the end of this Torah portion, and he will be buried by both sons, Yitzchak and Yishma’el.
The week of this Torah portion, I’ve had the great honor of participating on an Encounter program. As Encounter defines itself, it is a “diverse community of Jewish leaders ready to encounter the complex stories, people and place at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.
As an Israeli citizen, I need a special permit to go to Areas A & B under the Oslo accord. I walk through places I have not been able to get to in decades, “encountering” the busy Manara Square in Ramallah and the peaceful glorious sunset over Beit Jalla; the impoverished villages east of Herodion and the luxurious hotel in center Beit Lechem; the antsy, nervous, angry line at the border check point and the tensions over homes in East Jerusalem the morning after the elections.
Wherever I go, Yitzchak and Yishma’el walk with me: Yitzchak with his quality of gevura, din – judgment and bravery, and Yishmael, with his boundless, overflowing chesed, kindness, each one looking over his shoulder at what the other has and what he doesn’t have; each one forgetting his role and focusing on what the other one is not doing well or well enough… What do these two brothers need in order to play nice in their father’s land?
The Torah reminds us through several stories that as adults, they do like each other and do get along; that they learn to let each be who he is, appreciating their complimentary aspects. But the road there might be not simple at all.
May we merit to see peace and wellbeing. Shabbat Shalom.

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Sh’ma Abraham! The Torah portion of Vayera

Jane: Honey, what is that wooden sled still doing here? Every time I walk into the garage, I almost trip over this thing! I hate it! I need you to lose it and asap!
Joe: Honey! How could you ask me to… what?? You know how much this sled means to me! With this very sled my high school sweetheart and I won the foreign teens championship in Norway thirty years ago! You cant possibly ask me to…
G-d: Joe! Forget that sled, I’ll get you another one, and listen to whatever Jane says…

Last week, Sarah (Sarai then) suggests to Abraham (Abram) take Hagar, her handmaid, for him to have a child. After all, G-d promised him an offspring, but maybe not through her? They have been in the land now, after returning from Egypt, for ten years. Surely if G-d wanted them to have children together, it would have happened by now, wouldn’t it?
Interestingly, Abraham who fights to save Lot and argues about Sodom and Gamora, here, just says, ok, or – nothing, He quickly complies as Hagar also maybe answers his prayers for a child; for a child with the Egyptians who has the potential of making him – and his way of life – a great dynasty. Hagar becomes pregnant, and treats Sarah, her mistress, “lightly”, feeling, herself to be Abraham’s rightful wife, possibly fueled by his feelings as well. Sarah approaches Abraham asking for his help in the matter, and his response is, “do to her as you wish”. Sarah “tortures” her (vate’aneha” – a word with multiple roots and meanings -) and Hagar runs away.
The angel that finds her calls her “Hagar the maidservant of Sarai” (15:8) as if trying to remind her who she is and what’s her role, instructing her to go back. The Abarbanel points out that she didn’t head back right away, suggesting she was scared to be worked too hard and lose her baby. Only when the angel says, “behold you’re pregnant with a son…” (15:11) she knows her promise will be kept and agrees to go back.
In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac is born and Sarah observes with great distress the interactions between “her son”, Isaac and “his son”, Yishma’el. She uses the verb “garesh”, same root used for gerushin, divorce when telling Abraham to send them away.
The text tells us that Abraham felt very badly for “his son”, but G-d says, “don’t feel bad for the boy and for your maidservant”, which might be the first time that someone actually notes the special bond that developed between Abraham and Hagar. For a brief moment, it seems that G-d “understands” Abraham’s feelings. Still, in spite of the brief compassion, G-d tells him: “Listen to Sarah’s voice”. Rashi notes that this comes to show that Abraham was secondary to Sarah in prophesy. Rabbi Hirsch notes that the voice is likened to the soul and that G-d instructed Abraham to be tuned with Sarah’s spiritual knowledge. In a way, Abraham was the transistor while Sarah was the antenna. A careful read reveals that G-d never talks to Abraham without Sarah being by his side!
But there is also irony in this section, expressed by the choice of roots: Hashem tells Abraham about Sarah, “shma bekola”, listen to her voice (21:12) using the same word as our Shma “mantra”, and the same root as Yishma’el, And already Pirkei D’rabbi Eliezer notes that G-d does not put his name (“el” – G-d) in many names, but He did in Isra-el and in Yishma-el, to hint that at the end of time, these two children of Abraham will have to “figure things out”.
Back to Sara, I must admit, there were times when I was almost jealous. Wouldn’t anyone like it if G-d showed up on their side when one is about to lose a major argument, telling everybody to listen up?!
But then it dawned on me, how terrible Sarah must have felt, to need such an Advocate, to not be heard by the person who was her nearest and dearest, especially when it came to the most critical issue in their life; to be so far that G-d Himself had to intervene… Having such a powerful ally might shed light not only her great spirituality, as Rashi and others say, but also on her pain and danger and the grave state of their relationship at that point.
But in spite of the pain and him not fully understanding, Abraham complies. He gets up early, packs a lunch and saddles his donkey. By doing so, perhaps he gives Sarah what is still one of the greatest gift anyone can give another: the gift of listening.

Shabbat Shalom.  

 

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Lech Lecha Forever….

I loved many things about “Forever”, the relatively new – and excellent – Amazon show, although it took me a little while to figure out and get used to. There are many ideas to discuss, best is the unexpected ending, like walking out of Gan Eden, a form of Lech Lecha – holding hands and walking into the unknown, creating an opportunity for something we couldn’t have imagined at all…
The midrash fills-in “famous” stories about Abraham’s childhood, about him going out into the field, watching the sun and moon, discovering G-d’s presence in the world; about him “helping” his father in the idols’ workshop, “proving” to his immediate family that there is only one G-d… Just the fact that the midrash works so hard to tell us so much, gives us an idea how little we actually know and how much is missing.
The Torah tells us that Abraham was one of three brothers; that one brother died while still in Ur Casdim (Ur of the Chaldeans, about where Iraq is today); that the two remaining brothers were busy rebuilding the reminder of the Hebrew family, after losing 1/3 of them; and that this must have been a tragic time, personally and nationally. The Jewish year was around 1948, and just like in the last century, people didn’t talk much about their tragedies; instead they did what they had to do in order survive and ultimately thrive. That’s when Terach, Abraham’s father opted to take the family out of the “fiery furnace” (where the midrash tells us the ancient Jews were thrown into ovens –) and start on the journey to the Land of Israel, to build a new “state”, a new “state of mind”. As is the case with many journeys, his was driven by the desire to escape from a place that had harmed him. But when he chanced upon a lovely, modern, progressive, pluralistic city along the way, he chose to stay there.
Perhaps that’s where he then got a job as an idol workshop owner. Yes, maybe that position just opened. Or maybe something else.
Here is what our sages tell us in the Tractate of Ktubot (isn’t it interesting that matters of aliya are in the same tractate as marriage issues and challenges?):
ת”ר לעולם ידור אדם בא”י אפי’ בעיר שרובה עובדי כוכבים ואל ידור בחו”ל ואפילו בעיר שרובה ישראל שכל הדר בארץ ישראל דומה כמי שיש לו אלוה וכל הדר בחוצה לארץ דומה כמי שאין לו אלוה שנא’ (ויקרא כה, לח) לתת לכם את ארץ כנען להיות לכם לאלהים
In relation to the basic point raised by the mishna concerning living in Eretz Yisrael, the Sages taught: A person should always reside in Eretz Yisrael, even in a city that is mostly populated by gentiles, and he should not reside outside of Eretz Yisrael, even in a city that is mostly populated by Jews. The reason is that anyone who resides in Eretz Yisrael is considered as one who has a God, and anyone who resides outside of Eretz Yisrael is considered as one who does not have a God. As it is stated: “To give to you the land of Canaan, to be your God” (Leviticus 25:38) [sefaria’s translation]
A bit harsh? Nevertheless, the sages of the Babylonian Talmud, who sometimes clean things up just a little, in favor of their (lovely, modern, progressive, pluralistic) diaspora, here cling to a verse, teaching that living outside of the Land of Israel is tantamount to not having a G-d. What can we make of it, outside of Israel?
In order to make sense of that, we’ll invite another voice, from many centuries later, that of Rabbi Nachman who said: לכל מקום שאני הולך, אני הולך לארץ ישראל… “Everywhere I go, I am going to the Land of Israel”.
Wait, then what’s the problem with Abraham’s father? True, he parked for a while but still, if “everywhere” I go is part of the journey, then isn’t Charan (where he stayed, around Syria of today) also part of “everywhere”?
Indeed, in recent decades we focused in this phrase mostly on the Land of Israel, trying to deal with a new reality of the physical space, its politics, borders, management and much more. But perhaps, the saying also emphasizes “going”. If so it would mean that as long as we keep on going and keep growing, we’re going to a land that G-d shows us, the Land of Yashar-El, of being straight with G-d as well as struggling with G-d. The journey is often twisted and winding; we’re not always sure where “The” Land is; then again, Abraham wasn’t sure either. G-d said, to go to the “Land that I will show you”. Abraham thought he saw it, but then had another idea in mind, and thought that maybe Egypt will be “it”; he went down, then went up again. G-d was not always specific; he didn’t tell him everything, and the journey was not “perfect”, but ultimately, the “imperfection was also how it was supposed to be. Had G-d wanted the human beings to be obedient puppets, He could have made us so. But instead he made us as we are, somewhat flawed, somewhat great, including the opportunity to create our own journeys. At the end of the day, the Torah portion introducing Abraham and Sarah, our patriarch and matriarch, is not a full biography of their life, nor is it a foundation of our faith or obedience or peace on earth or a list of mitzvot or so many things, but it is about never giving up on walking, on “going on”, deeper and closer, and through that, being a blessing to ourselves and those around us too.

Shabbat Shalom.

keep on walking….

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Once upon an Ark – Parashat Noah

The second day of creation is the only day that doesn’t get a “good” (or “very good”) grade. Ten generations later, we find out why, when the flood covers the earth. It is as if G-d blew air into the water, creating a little bubble for us to live in, but once we misuse it, the water from above and below start mixing as this bubble threatens to close.
It is strange to read this story this week, along images of areas, impacted by hurricane “Michael”. Back then too, it’s clear there was a very serious flood, as flood stories exist in other near eastern cultures. But our story, long before environmental studies and research, spoke to the deep connection between human behavior and the world around, in ways we can – and cannot – quite fathom. So much so that while the first human is called “Adam”, “Adama” which would be the female grammatical form of this name, is not the word for his spouse, but for his “real” partner – the earth.
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Everybody knows Noah, the kind old man who, in most kids’ books, is bigger than the ark itself. Noah was both “righteous” and “wholehearted”. 19 century Rav Hirsch says that “righteousness” refers to his ways in the outside world, doing justice, being public, working with the world, while “wholehearted” describes Noah’s own-self, and what he does to complete himself. Noah walks with G-d. By contrast next week (and we compare them often), we’ll see that we know close to nothing about Abraham: G-d tells him “go”, and doesn’t tell us any of his qualities, and why he was chosen for this monumental task. Because Abraham we know; he’s ‘ours’ and needs no intros; it would be like introducing a grandfather to his own grandchildren. In addition, any intro’s would also just limit him, saying he’s this way or that, and the Torah sees no reason to shrink him.
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So Noah is a good guy, at least compare to when and where he lived. And he has 3 sons: Shem, Cham & Yefet, each representing another mega-culture or way of being in the world. Shem, who is our forefather, literally means “name”, but also as in לשם – le-shem – “for the sake of”, indicating purpose and direction, as a name should be, nd therefore also used for G-d, Hashem, “The Name”, the ultimate goal.

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The word for ark in this story, teiva, appears in the whole Bible only in two contexts; here and in the story of “baby Moses”. In both cases, a teiva is a life saving vessel, floating on the water (not a boat or basket-) and its purpose is survival rather than arrival somewhere. The root of the word is unclear and we can only learn about it from itself. Interestingly, it can also be used for a “word” or syllable, as if G-d invites Noah to come into the “word”.
G-d doesn’t leave anything for Noah’s imagination regarding the measurements and material of which the teiva should be built. The last piece is the window. Well, not quite a window, but a tzohar, צהר another unusual word that appears only here (and from which in modern Hebrew we get tzohorayim, noon, the time of extra or double light). Rav Hirsch connects tzohar to zohar, זהר to illuminate, and Rashi, based on the midrash, says about the tzohar that is can mean both “window” or “a good gem”, both being a source of light for those in the ark: The good gem would light for those inside the closed ark from within, while, in contrast, the window would allow light from the outside, leaving us to wonder, where does light comes from? Is it something we have within us, and by the nature of who we are, emanate and share it with those around us – or – is it something far away, incomprehensible, we look for outside of ourselves, and get only a glimpse of?

Shabbat Shalom.

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Presenting: the Spiral- the Torah portion of Beresheet

Our story of creation is a crazy story. It should have gone like this: ‘Once, whenever, G-d said poof and there was a perfect world; the end’. Instead, we have this: first G-d makes light. Then S/He says, this is alright, but, oops, what was I thinking? I should really separate the water above from the water below, but, well, that will take an extra day, I’ll do that tomorrow… Wait, I could gather the dirt and put some trees here, maybe even with fruits, ah, that looks good; And what about some sparkle? a sun and moon, maybe few stars in the sky? Yes, looks better… wait… wait!! I could make little creatures who would swim and fly and roam and walk the earth, maybe land animals? Oh yes, and how about a human who would be half soul, half dust, half divine, half flesh and bones; someone who at times, would cause all sorts of trouble to my planet and his peers, and at other times, would be absolutely amazing? That would be a nice touch!”….
But the Torah is not a history book, nor is it a physics, bio etc. Some scientific theories trying to align the two, and sometimes it matches but that is not the goal. It’s more like a letter to the human from the Divine talking about who they are and what’s their relationships like; a love letter if you will. From the very beginning, it speaks of second chances and make ups, of taking time, of doing things, of having opinions, of being deeply and fully engaged. That’s why we read it like this: did you see what s/he said here? I wonder what it means. We analyze every word, syllable, punctuation, options. We read it like our life depends on it, because, well, maybe it does.
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I think that even if we spend all our life on the first few chapters of Genesis, there will still be more left to “wow” at. Just looking at the very first verse, there is very little we understand; ah, let’s just try the first word! Beresheet is often translated as “in the beginning”, but had it been that, it should have been baresheet (and not be-resheet). As it stands, the first word of the Torah is in a form of a סמיכות a grammatical proximity, that is, a word which is not a stand. It literally means – ‘In A beginning of”… but then goes to talk about something else. I must say that it took me a while to notice, having grown up with this text and pretty much learning it by heart and taking it for granted, but I actually love it like this. I mean, I am not the first nor only one to see it and in the scheme of more than 2000 years, someone could have corrected this minor punctuation difference, but we didn’t. We kept our first word of our most holy book as a proximity with nothing obvious attached, leaving us to wonder, maybe we are its other part -?
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Ultimately, there is only one word we might understand in that first verse of the Torah: הארץ Ha’aretz – the earth, and also the term we affectionately use to describe “The Land”. If so, the verse means, “in a beginning, created G-d the heavens and the Land – of Israel”. A stretch?
Just earlier this week, on Simchat Torah, we finished reading the Torah and started right away again. We said we’re doing this to show that there is no beginning and no end. There is a teaching that when connecting the last letter of the Torah – — lamed and the first one — bet, we get the word lev, heart, so the Torah will be on our hearts continuously, and yet we don’t often look at it thematically.
In the last chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses is teaching the Torah to the People of Israel (Deuteronomy 33:1. If all had gone well, he would have gone with them into the Land of Israel, bringing together the third pillar (the Torah, People and Land). In fact, we would have not gotten any more biblical books and lived happily ever after at home. Well, it didn’t quite work out this way, but that doesn’t prevent us from, one way or another, talking immediately now about the Land.
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The same G-d who looked at creation said it’s good, also looked one chapter later and said, it’s not good: “It is not good for the human to be alone” לא טוב היות האדם לבדו (Genesis 2:18). The first human is a combination male and female. It’s great. They live in oneness; they do everything together; they have no arguments, no challenges, it’s all good. They also don’t see each other, can’t grow, can’t feel the pain of separation and the joy of finding each other again. The human who was לבדו levado (alone) was לבוד lavud – wrapped around himself. Too much loneliness makes people harsh, says an Israeli song says מבדידות האנשים יוצאים קשים – let Me make him a help-meet against him, says G-d, so he can figure out how to use these communication skills I gave him, so he can feel and laugh and cry and eventually, get out of himself and eventually rediscover Me too. And the rest is commentary.
Shabbat Shalom.

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