Joseph, Olive Oil & Chag Habanot – 3 shorts for Shabbat Hanukkah-Rosh Hodesh Tevet

Exactly XX year ago, Miketz was the Torah reading on my Bat Mitzvah, and some years later, and many miles away, my son’s too.

The bat mitzvah was at the reform synagogue, Ohr Chadash (a new light) in Haifa, Israel. It was winter, and “one never knows what the weather will do”, so my mom and I got a “warm” woven, blue and white skirt and short jacket. My description doesn’t do it justice – it was really lovely. Nobody particularly cared or pushed me to do anything, but I wanted to read from the Torah. For the weeks prior, I studied weekly with the rabbi so I could read the short maftir (on a 3-year cycle) and the haftara. After the service, we all went home to our “3 rooms” (i.e. 2 bedrooms and a living room) apartment, where all my immediate family and close friends had some food and time to just be together. Presents included thick books titled “4000 years of Jewish history”, arts and crafts kits and enough money to buy my first record, Shocking Blue with their biggest hit, Venus.

The maftir was about Joseph “Jacobson” and his wife, Osnat who’s described as “the daughter of Poti-fera, the priest of Onn” and according to the sages is really Dina’s daughter, expanding their family. They have two sons: Ephrayim & Menashe. Rav Hirsch (1808-1888) rejects the simplistic, common translation of Menashe to be  “G-d has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” and perhaps based on a hint from Rabbi Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) suggests another read, which would reject Joseph forgetting anything, least of all his own toil and his father’s house! Fortunately, says Rav Hirsch “to forget” is not the only meaning of מנשה; it also denotes “being a creditor”. Accordingly, נשני nashani would mean: G-d has turned my tragedy and my family into my creditors; what until now seemed to me misfortune and abuse, G-d has turned into an instrument to shape my happiness, so that I find myself deeply indebted to my troubles and to my family”.

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If you told me, growing up, that Hanukkah is an agricultural holiday from the Torah, I would probably alternate between surprise and disbelief. Hanukkah? Everybody knows it’s about the Maccabees and their battles which can be hiked at and re-imagined; a miracle and a flask of oil, which rekindled the light in the Temple menorah; presents and get together, but agricultural? What’s to do? It’s raining and cold! Besides, we have our agricultural holidays: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot! and those are commemorated in the modern Israel with wonderful celebrations in the kiubtzim, so that must be all there is.

In the Israel that I grew up in, there were citrus orchards and apple trees; fields of wheat and barley. Olive trees, on the other hand, were largely associated with Arabic villages, and not much attention was spent on how one goes from “olive tree” to “olive oil”. Who knew that right at Hanukkah is the time of harvest and production of olive oil throughout Israel, to this very day!

The Torah in its way presents it in a verse that many read daily as part of the Blessings of the Shma:

וְנָתַתִּ֧י מְטַֽר־אַרְצְכֶ֛ם בְּעִתּ֖וֹ יוֹרֶ֣ה וּמַלְק֑וֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ֣ דְגָנֶ֔ךָ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֖ וְיִצְהָרֶֽךָ׃

I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—

וְנָתַתִּ֛י עֵ֥שֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ֖ לִבְהֶמְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃

I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.

Notice the annual cycle: there will be rain in its time so we can collect our produce, also in its time: דגן – dagan, wheat to make bread from, – symbolizing Shavuot; תירוש – tirosh – wine making grapes, symbolizing Sukkot and יצהר – yitzhar, oil, symbolizing Hanukkah! We will also have animal food, barley, indicating, the bounty will last until next Pesach, thus giving us a full annual cycle how it will be to “eat and be satisfied”.

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This Shabbat is also Rosh Hodesh (the new moon of the month of) Tevet, which in some North African communities is consider חג הבנות – “Chag Habanot”, Id El-banat (Arabic) or Fete des Filles (French). The holiday was kept primarily in Tunisia, where, according to tradition, the Temple’s priests were exiled to, and thus maintains a number of ancient traditions, and celebrates this day, which always falls in the heart of Hanukkah, to salute women along Jewish history. About Hanukkah we’re told in the Talmud (Shabbat 23:1) that women are obligated in candle lighting “because they were in the same miracle”. In the Scroll of Esther, we’re told that, that on the “10th month” (i.e. Tevet) Esther was crowned to be queen. Hanukkah and Purim share many commonalities: they are both “human-made” victories, but alas! in this case, human actually means women-made. The day was celebrated with great joy, foods, gift-giving, music and dance, to bring in “tastes” from Purim into Hanukkah. In the modern state of Israel, “mother’s day” is (was?) always part of Hanukkah and now I just wonder, if that’s how it traveled. One way or another, maybe a good opportunity to celebrate the women in your life, maybe with an olive oil massage 😊

Shabbat Shalom, Hanukkah Same’ach & Hodesh Tov!!

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“Vayeshev” (sitting) in Darkness (with a twinkling light far away….)

In the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion is says:
א וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב, בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו–בְּאֶרֶץ, כְּנָעַן. 1 And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan.
There are two verbs to describe “dwelling”: one, indicating permanence (lashevet), and one, indicating temporariness (lagur). The first (y.sh.v) is related to y.tz.v. – stability, and denotes standing firmly, undisturbed. By contrast, the second, (lagur) denotes being a ger, a transient resident, living in a place where one does not belong; living in fear (asher yagorti).
The Kedushat Levy, Chasidic commentary from the 18th century, teaches that Jacob was afraid, and that, as is implied from this verse in מגורי אביו – megurei aviv, especially the fear of his father was on him, for all the “normal” Freudian reasons, such as disappointing both his earthly and heavenly fathers. For example, Isaac was told to never leave the Land. Jacob left already once for 20 years with Lavan, and soon, he’ll have to go to Egypt, eventually to die there. Is he doing something that his father, who very well might still be alive, does not approved of?! That once again, his affinity to siting, will cost him in father thinking he’s not “man” enough, like favorite Esau? His fear of his father reflects his fear of Hashem, but Kedushat Levy thinks is a positive thing, because Jacob always keep one’s eyes on the ball, is always being concerned he’s doing what G-d wants of him, keeping to G-d’s straight (yashar-el) and narrow. It seems like too much fear can be paralyzing but some fear helps us be accountable to who we are.
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This Sunday evening is first candle of Hanukkah. As we know there are Shabbat candles and there are – Hanukkah candles. What’s the difference? According to Rav Soloveichik, Shabbat candles are there for שלום בית  -“shlom bayit”, peace in the house, so there won’t be darkness, because in case of darkness, someone might fall, and then there will be fighting. Hanukkah candles on the other hand, are not allowed to be used. Contrary to what we often think (or sing -), Hanukkah candles don’t come to dispel darkness, but they remind us of a greater cosmic light, faraway. This can be compared to someone walking alone in the forest, and someone gives them a flashlight. This helps see the next few feet on the path. On the other hand, G-d says to Abraham, “lift up your eyes and see the stars”… this is reminder of the Divine in life, of possibilities, of a greater world than the painful here and now which we know so little of. These are the Hanukkah candles, a blessing from another world in the heart of the dark winter.

Shabbat Shalom.

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No Hollywood in Jacob’s journey – 3 shorts on Parashat Vayishlach

It’s a glorious sunny day in NYC, bright and beautiful. And 30 degrees. Fahrenheit. Need to layered up some, and remember that things are not always as they seem.

In the Torah portion of Vayishlach, Jacob is traveling back after 20 year with Lavan in “chutz la’aretz” (outside of Israel) to the Land of Israel. He has accumulated great wealth, kids, herds, stuff; It’s hard to leave, hard to travel and hard to settle. Along the way, Rachel dies; Dina is raped; Yitzchak dies; Esau, with whom he manages to make some peace, moves away; An angel struggles with him on route and he gains his name, Yisrael, “for you have become the commanding power before G-d and men (people), since you have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29).
The sun, which set on his way out of the Land, as he headed to a form of darkness, now shines on Jacob, but he is limping (32:32). I simultaneously like it and hate it: I want a Hollywood ending, with Jacob marching out of the smoke, triumphant, unharmed, no ifs and buts, with everybody smiling, everybody living “happily ever after”, the captions rolling on the screen as they fade into the horizon. But the Torah doesn’t do that. It doesn’t let me escape the deep, intrinsic complexity of life: ‘we’ll be ok’’ it says, ‘we’ll aim high, and it will be great, but don’t expect it to be totally smooth’. I sigh with great discomfort and relief.

Dina is Jacob and Leah’s daughter, and 13th child. Commentaries suggest that she’s expected to be the mother of the 13th tribe, and that Jacob hoped to marry her off to a prince of the land, to establish his presence in the region. Is that why she “went out”, trusting, knowing she’s following her father’s plan? The rabbis tell us that Dina became pregnant and that her daughter, who was sent to be a servant at the home of the Egyptian priest, Potifera, is Osnat, the one who marries Joseph and bears him Menashe and Ephrayim from whom a messiah might be born. Nevertheless, this time, the “happy ending” doesn’t make it good. It’s an awful story we used to like to skip, that now regains attention, highlighting issues of abuse, power, and the unique dangers women face. And yet, it’s no more a “women’s issue” than if there are abused anyone (children, immigrants, workers). In a situation where abuse regains, everyone gets hurt, not just the person who suffers the blows, be those physical, spiritual, emotional, financial, sexual, existential of any kind. Maybe it’s an especially good Shabbat to pause, somewhere alone one of the many “mi sheberach’s” (prayers for healing) and add, whether in prescribed words, heartfelt or in silence, a space that says, let’s raise our awareness, let’s work towards enough.

Blast from the Past: Just in time for Daf Yomi’s sacrifices and offerings matters, an amazing gift from the past showed up this week, when archeologist found a small weight from the time of the 1st Temple, south of the Kotel in the City of David, in Jerusalem. The weight has backwards ancient Hebrew letters so it can be used as a stamp. The letters are B.K. A’ – ב.ק.ע. The “beka’” was equivalent to half a shekel, a donation each person over 20 years old had to bring. This corresponds to the Exodus 38:26:

בֶּ֚קַע לַגֻּלְגֹּ֔לֶת מַחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ לְכֹ֨ל הָעֹבֵ֜ר עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֗ים מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה לְשֵׁשׁ־מֵא֥וֹת אֶ֙לֶף֙ וּשְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת אֲלָפִ֔ים וַחֲמֵ֥שׁ מֵא֖וֹת וַחֲמִשִּֽׁים׃

a beka’ – half-shekel a head, half a shekel by the sanctuary weight, for each one who was entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, 603,550 men.

If you’re in Israel this Hanukkah, the finding will be presented in the National Gardens of Ein Tzurim.

Shabbat Shalom!

By Gustave Dore, 1832-1883

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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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