In the desert… on names, shoes, mensches and women

In the desert you can’t remember your name…. In the Book of “Names”, so is Exodus, Shmot, שמות, called in Hebrew, some have a name and many more – don’t. Perhaps, this is so we won’t get caught up in the details, as if it doesn’t matter who it is, just what happens, and we should stay focused on the big picture story.
And maybe it’s because with this book, we move into exile; Exile – in capital E. In Exile, the people around you, can barely pronounce the name you were given. And they don’t know you. You’re no longer “little Moishele” from next door, the son (or daughter) of… but “that Hebrew”, “that Israeli”, “that guy”, “that girl”. People tell you apart by some outward characteristic – size, color, nationality, some abnormality. Exile messes with the details of one’s identity, and threatens your existence on every possible level. You’re teetering between almost forgetting completely where you’ve come from and where you’re going to, being assimilated and gone, and between having to fight for survival, physical, emotional, spiritual. May we fnd the way out of the Tight, Narrow place, whatever it is, that is our personal Mitzrayim (Egypt).


של נעלך מעל רגלך….

shal naalecha me’al raglecha”, says G-d to Moses in their famous meetup at the Burning Bush, “take your shoes off your feet” (Exodus 3:5). I’m thinking about barefoot Moses today, as I venture into the impressive snow storm outside. “I don’t care about the storm,”, I tell my friend, “I have shoes”. I say it and immediately regret. What kind of (stupid) statement is this? I care plenty!! Not to mention that on top of my heavy-duty, water-proof, rubber-soled, thick-lined shoes, I have many layers. And yet, I wonder, what is it about shoes?
Shoes affect the way we walk, our posture when we stand, our balance when we talk, argue, sing, dance, feel energetic and by contrast, feel exhausted. Shoes impact our attitude regarding our height, confidence, presence. And by contrast, what is about being barefoot? About feeling the earth on our skin? About being shorter, closer to the ground, simpler, humbler?
When I was little (very little), I would put on my mom’s high-heels and strut around, clicking them noisily on the tile floor, feeling tall and powerful, even if I was in my PJ, and by contrast, how about wearing a fancy evening gown, barefoot? The whole feel of the glamourous dress evaporates.
And how Moshe’s first encounter with G-d? There was no requirement to “strip”, but to take it just a notch down; to approach holiness with feeling, with nuance, with presence, with humility. To come barefoot.
What is the big deal about the Burning Bush? If G-d wanted to show Himself, couldn’t He have done so through a much grander medium? But the Burning Bush is not about G-d, who can anyway do anything; it’s about Moshe; it’s about how to be in the world; it’s about taking off barriers to be more present.
A Burning Bush that is Not Consumed is no miracle at all. Until one actually takes the extra minute to notice, it’s just another irrelevant fire in some middle of nowhere desert. Most of us might run to get water, or just – run. It takes a Moshe. To stop. Approach. Her the instructions. And. Really. Really. Look.


In the mishna, in Pirkei Avot (2:6) it says: במקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש — “Where there is no “ish” – no mensch, no one “worthy” — try to be one”. When there is no one who would be an upstanding citizen; when everybody stands back; where there is so called “no one”, you try and be “the one”.
In this week’s Torah reading, Moses finds himself in several bad situations. In one of them, the text says, he is looking here and there, maybe trying to spot someone else who would do something, but, alas: “vayar ki ein ish” – וירא כי אין איש – and sees that there is “no-one”  (Exodus 2:12). He then ducks the Egyptian in the sand. But, as Prince of Egypt shows so poignantly, there were lots of people around, and the next day, it turns out someone was there who saw exactly what happened and challenged him:
“Are you about to kill me as you did to the Egyptian yesterday?
Moses demonstrates the verse from Pirkei Avot in actuality and shows us what it’s like to be a leader: to do for others regardless of who they are, Hebrews, Egyptians, Midyanites. “Where there is “no one”, be the one; do what you can to fill the gap between what doesn’t happen and what should be done.
There are a number of heroes at the opening of the Book of Exodus that follows that call: Moses’s mother. And sister. And the midwives. And Pharaoh’s daughter. And Moses’ wife. To which we can paraphrase and say, במקום שאין אנשים, אפשר שתהיה אשה ‘where there is no “ish”, there might be an… isha’ (woman).

Shabbat Shalom.

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Last but not least: from the journal of…

… When the family will be coming down to live with us here, in Egypt, my mother will be with them too. So many moons and suns have passed since I last saw her! I’m already a mother myself… I still remember that night when I was whisked away in the darkness, shipped to a land I knew not with a convoy of Midyanites… I thought I’d never hear from her, nor see her again! But, it is Joseph, my dear, beautiful husband, who met her when he went back for his father, finally, after all these year. Until then, I was not even sure she was still alive, what with all the suffering she went through. But my mom, she’s a tough lady. He told me, that although she’s aged, as expected, and when silent, there’s a steak of sadness in her eyes, nevertheless, she’s still talkative and outgoing, chatting with the nearby ladies about this and that in all the languages of the land.
My mother. How come no one ever wondered what happened to her? After my uncles maimed and slaughtered the whole town, they grabbed her and took her home. Well, sort of “home”. When they found out she was pregnant, they contemplated how to send her away too. That was their specialty, my uncles Shimon & Levi: getting rid of the siblings they though were not fit to be part of the family’s “right” lineage. After all, that was the custom until then: not every offspring will inherit Abraham’s special spiritual blessing. My grandfather said no to that, as my mom was his only daughter. So they figured out how to, at least, send me away, hoping that will blot out that “incidence” – as they called it, and bring peace and quiet to the family.
At first, my mom and I were cast to live elsewhere, settling on a barren hilltop with nothing but our tent and a couple of goats. Grandpa didn’t say much, but like his own grandfather, who used to sneak out late at night from under Sarah’s watchful eyes, to bring extra food and goods to Hagar and his first born, Yishma’el, would come to visit with us regularly. After all, my father and his whole family were dead and his town – whipped out. How were we to survive, just my mother and me all alone? Who would take care of us? When the moon was full, I would watch grandpa climb up the hill; a bag on his shoulder. “I brought you mizimrat ha’aretz”, he would chant melodically with a semi-twinkle in his eyes, his deep voice echoing. Zimrat Haaretz, that was funny – it means the produce but also the song of the Land. Sometimes, he would bring food and spices, dates, figs and even leftover of a yummy stew he prepared so well; sometimes he would bring oil we could trade with our neighbors and even a tree-sapling we could plant ourselves. Sometimes, my grandma Leah would come with Zilpa, and let her handmaid stay with us for a few days so my mom could rest during “her days”.
Shimon & Levi were also the ones who, soon after, got rid of Joseph. I’m want to be precise, saying “got rid of” because for so long, no one knew what happened to him. Everybody thought he was dead. I mean, grandpa thought he was dead. My mom knew something was up. She and Joseph were especially close; she knew about his dreams, worries, hopes. Then again, she also her brothers. But grandpa… he became extremely depressed. I would hear him crying among the olive trees, his mournful wails mixing with those of the hyenas and foxes around, his face a mixture of dust and tears. “Grandpa, what happened?” I would ask. “My allergies are getting the best of me”, he would say, hugging me close, his eyes wet. I think in those days, he had no one to talk to. My uncles were out with the herds; his beloved Rachel was already dead. Grandma Leah was strict and busy, and though she cared for the camp, had no time or patience for his long stories. Only I loved to listen. We would sit down under a carob tree by the spring, and he would tell me again, about the family, about how his grandfather left home, following G-d as he journeyed to Cana’an; about his grandma, who was so beautiful that even when she was more than hundred years old, men fell for her charms; about Isaac, their son, who was still figuring out what happened at the Binding, meditating in the field when he saw the camels carrying great-grandma Rivkah to him; about his own escape from his brother, and the life with my tricky great-grandfather, Lavan, Rivkah’s brother. But mostly, we would talk about dreams: about his own, and those of Joseph, and mine too. What was the meaning of a dream? What it true? And what was the meaning of “truth”? Was it the same as “factual”? or was truth something else??
“Grandpa, I also want to do something great with my life”, I would say, my feet dangling in the spring’s cool water.
“Oh, you will”, he would answer, thoughtfully. “In our family, the women do great things too”.
“But what? And how? And when already?” I’d ask impatiently.
“We will have to wait and see”, he would answer with a heavy sigh, “You have to trust the journey. It might not be easy or straight, but G-d willing, it will lead you to where you need to be. Ah”, he would sigh again with a mournful heart. “I say this mostly to myself… As for you”, he would say, playing with a reddish long curls, “keep listening; keep praying; and keep dreaming. True, there are no dreams without some nonsense, and yet, the dreams will help you. They come in the darkest of nights, to remind us that there is a glimpse of light, of hope, even there. Dreams are the gateway to healing”, then he’d sigh again.
I had only one dream. It was very clear and it repeated every night. In my dream, I was to live in a palace. I was married to a handsome ruler who knew many languages, had divine wisdom and was the most beautiful – and well dressed! – man of the land. We would have thirteen children, and there would be thirteen of everything for them: tables and chairs and shiny coats and sacks and goblets and crowns… what was the meaning of this dream? How would I ever have anything, when I’m living in a tent with my castaway mother?
Then one night, all bundled up, on with a convoy of Midyanites – another crafty, shady deal of my uncles and Yishmaelites relatives – I was sent to Egypt. Money was exchanged as I was loaded on silently like cargo. The caravan drudged through the desert, moving at night when it was cooler, and resting at an oasis during the day. Lucky for us, the caravan’s men wanted a good price for us girls, and left the virgins among us alone. I could learn a few words in other languages and play with the other girls, while the drivers slept; I could wonder: does anyone know what happened to me? Will anyone ever come for me? Where are we going? And when will we get there?
Some of my questions were soon answered: I was sold to be a servant to Potifar’s wife. Crunched on the marble floor, scrubbing the endless shiny tiles, is when I first saw him, first, just his reflection, another servant, but… ah, the great miracles of life! How a terrible curse can become a blessing!
I think Ephrayim & Menashe are calling me. Perhaps they can already see the family’s convoy approaching, all 70 souls of them, well, depends who’s counting. There is so much more to say, but for now…. Shabbat Shalom!

Note: According to the midrash, Joseph’s wife, Osnat, the “daughter of Potifera, the priest of Onn”, was no other than Dina’s daughter, who like Joseph, was sold to be a slave in Egypt. This entry is based on text, midrash, gemara and my own imagination 🙂

From Joseph, King of Dream – movie

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Judah & Joseph: brothers in arms

We were in 5th grade; a lively group of giggly girls on route home from school, when a couple of guys approached us with some questions. They had big recorders and microphones, and thick accents. They told us they were collecting messages from Israelis for the Jewish community abroad. Of course, it’s possible they were pulling our leg, that’s not the point. The point is that while everybody said “nice” things (“tell them we said, shalom”), I said, ‘tell them they should all come to Israel right away’. None of us said things like, how are they doing over there? What do they think? How do they live? Please tell them we love them and miss them…
As a famous song says, “היינו ילדים וזה היה מזמן” – we were kids and that was long ago, but the rift of miscommunications and misunderstandings between the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and chutz-la’aretz (abroad) hasn’t shrunken much. In fact, it’s so old that some of its characteristics can be traced back to the first “ex-pat” and the first long-term diaspora.
* First, Joseph has no known intention to get to Egypt, let alone stay there, but, just like today, “things happened”.
* Things start out not so good, became great – almost perfect, but just about when it’s never been better, they start tumbling down to worse than ever, until suffering and slavery.
* While back home, in Israel, Joseph did all he could to maintain his identity as one who is different from his brothers (they were shepherds, out in the field; he was in his pretty, multi-color coat, helping his father, back in the tent). Once in Egypt, he did all he could to maintain his identity as one who is different from the Egyptians and… similar to his brothers. Numerous times we hear him repeat (variations on) the phrase “עברי אנוכי” – Ivri anochi – I am a Hebrew. This is especially striking in comparison to Moses, just a few generations later, who, when described as an Ish Mitzri, an Egyptian Man (when he saves Tzipora and her sisters at the well) shows no objection. Later, Moses will be buried outside of the Land, while Joseph will be carried back in at the time of the Exodus. Burial discussions – still take place today, as does the struggle for one’s identity on the backdrop of the outside culture (see the Hanukkah story).
* Living in the diaspora has great attractions and advantages, but it also has a great price. The influence of a different place has an impact that can’t be denied, and can cause a change in one’s behavior and presence, likes and dislikes, not to mention ideas, clothing, accent, language and more. This might explain why Jacob – and the brothers – had a hard time recognizing Joseph when they first saw him, though that also speaks to the fact that, contrary to what we think, we see with our heart and not with our eyes. Very often, we see what we expect, and not necessarily what’s in front of us, and there are plenty of studies that talk about it (like the famous “selective attention” test with the gorilla).
* last ut not least, when Jacob’s children make the “ירידה” yerida, the move “down” to Egypt, it says: “and he (Jacob) sent Judah ahead of him” (Genesis 46:28). Why did he send Judah? Rashi says, based on the midrash, that Jacob wanted Judah to set up a proper place for the family arriving shortly, including a school / place of learning. But, wasn’t Joseph already in Egypt? Couldn’t Joseph prepare everything needed? He had access to the most powerful leader in the country! He knew the terrain! Won’t he be best suited? Turns out,  Jacob (Rashi’s and the Midrash’s Jacob), thinks that, although Joseph can do a lot (including making sure Jacob will receive a Jewish burial in the Holy Land), Judah is needed for the set-up of their home in Egypt.
So which is it? Joseph or Judah? The life of the diaspora Jew, or that in the Land? The answer is still, yes. May we learn to appreciate each other and the unique gifts each brings.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Memories, Dreams, Numbers & A Story

Chai (18) years ago, it was my oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. Six months earlier, our Sacramento shul was firebombed. Moving to a temporary location, we rolled the ark with Torah, and the wood-lattice mechitzah down the street to a nearby school, kind enough to let us use its facility.
The compromised location, didn’t put a damper on the cheerful festivities. Family and friends came from all over the world. “People are looking up to you”, I told my son proudly, after he completed his especially long Shabbat Hanukkah service. “I’ve noticed”, he said, already then towering over me.
My Bat Mitzvah, some years prior to that, took place at Or Chadash, the reform synagogue of Haifa. In a world where the Seculars didn’t step in shul, and the Orthodox didn’t have shul services for girls, I wanted to read Torah. And Haftara. And say something. And have a Kiddush. People came over for a reception, filling our two-bedroom apartment. Presents included a sweater my mom knitted; and books like “Masada” and “4000 years of Jewish History”.
This week’s reading includes Pharaoh’s dreams; Joseph interpreting those, and some of Joseph’s dreams coming true. We follow the lad, who was dropped in a pit – due to his dreams, being lifted, out of another pit, 13 years later, to the royal throne, due to his ability in figuring out dreams.
Dreams are amazing: davka (especially, contrary to what we might think) in the darkest of night, when we are most removed from life, when we are most vulnerable, entrusting our souls, a hint appears; a light; a minor prophecy.
One of my favorite sections in the Talmud deals with this issue (Tractate Brachot, Chapter 9). More than the dream itself, a great weight is given to the interpretation. Each dream is made of falsehood and truth nonsense and reality. “The interpretation “rules” the dream”, says the Zohar, “therefore one should tell his dream only to someone who loves him, so there is the greatest potential for the dream to come true in the best way possible.
At the end of last week’s reading, the butler and the baker tell joseph their dreams (Genesis 40:8):

ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו–חֲלוֹם חָלַמְנוּ, וּפֹתֵר אֵין אֹתוֹ; וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף, הֲלוֹא לֵאלֹהִים פִּתְרֹנִים–סַפְּרוּ-נָא, לִי. 8 And they said unto him: ‘We have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it.’ And Joseph said unto them: ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? tell it me, I pray you.’

And the question is, why does Joseph say, ‘interpretation belongs to G-d, tell me’? If it belongs to G-d, shouldn’t they tell Him? It’s possible that the intent is for them to know that solutions are divine. And also, Joseph is doing “therapy” with them. He takes no credit for the solution, but encourages them to talk. Saying things can reveal meaning.
Joseph insists that there is one Power behind all the images. We might notice the number 7 in Pharaoh’s dreams: 7 cows; 7 sheaves of grain (41:5):

ה וַיִּישָׁן, וַיַּחֲלֹם שֵׁנִית; וְהִנֵּה שֶׁבַע שִׁבֳּלִים, עֹלוֹת בְּקָנֶה אֶחָד–בְּרִיאוֹת וְטֹבוֹת. 5 And he slept and dreamed a second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good.

There is something else that is made of 7 that is one, and there two the word קנה “ka-ne” (here translated as “stalk”) appears – the menorah in the Temple. The menorah had different shapes and forms, but it was made of one “block”. It’s light was not made of separate candles, but a result of its oneness – the power of unity.
Joseph too, tells Pharaoh: “Pharaoh’s dream is one (One)” – ‘it seems to you, Pharaoh, that nature is made of different pieces, that there are different gods, different forces, energies, constellations, but really, it’s part of the Oneness; that One is past, present and future, unchangeable, the power of all powers; that is the Truth.
Back to Hanukkah: We are taught that G-d’s signature is Truth. Where do we see G-d’s truth in measurable things? The word for truth in Hebrew is אמת – emet, which is gimatriya is 441 = 4+4+1=9. The number 9 doesn’t change its multiplications: 18 = 1+8=9; 36= 3+6=9 etc. Any number you add in this way, won’t be changed by a 9. Hanukkah candles begin with 1 and end with 9. The total of actual candles is 36. Even in the darkest times, a flame flickers.
Rav Shteinman, one of “gdolei hador” of the Ultra-Orthodox world, passed away earlier this week at age 104. Here is but one short story:
A young man approached the rabbi, asking about buying a new sports car. “it’s been a dream”, said the young man, “My wife says I shouldn’t because we would be invoking tremendous envy, but I don’t think so”.
The Rav asked: “Is there any tractate of the Talmud you have worked at, studied really well, and now know? How about a chapter? Maybe a sugiya or even just a page?” When the young man replied in the negative, the Rav said, “Then in that case you’re right. I don’t think anyone has any reason to be envious of you”.

Hanukkah Same’ach & Shabbat Shalom

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3 J’s – Jacob, Joseph, Jerusalem


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 sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
There are two verbs to describe “dwelling”: one, indicating permanence (lashevet – לשבת), and one, indicating temporariness (lagur – לגור). The first ( – י.ש.ב.) is related to י.צ.ב – stability, and denotes standing firmly, undisturbed. By contrast, the second, (lagur – לגור) denotes being a ger – גר, a transient resident, living in a place where one does not belong; living in fear (אשר יגורתי בא לי).
Jacob, who already told us “עתה הייתי לשני מחנות” – now I’ve become two camps (Genesis 32:11), continues to be stretched between two opposites: he is so ready for stability, finally, after being in exile for decades; maybe he even thinks that he deserves it; that it will happen automatically; that his wandering days are over. He wants “lashevet”, but change and unrest are inevitable. Which of the two will manage him? And us? Are we driven by a desire for peace and quiet, “laying low”, “not causing any trouble”, and what are we willing to pay for that? Are we driven by fear, and what do we give up for that? What is it that manages us?
We are told about two tragedies in Jacob’s life: Dina, his only daughter, is raped (chapter 34) and Joseph, his beloved son, is almost killed and then sold by his brothers not to be seen by his family for 22 years (chapter 37).
Our sages point out the many ways these stories are intertwined. Rachel and Leah were pregnant at the same time. Dina, they tell us, was going to be born to Rachel, but Leah, in a gesture of kindness (in return for Rachel allowing her to marry Jacob, rather than be embarrassed), prays for her sister, so that she can be the mother of at least as many tribes as the maidservants, and the babies are “switched”: Leah is now pregnant with Dina while Rachel – is carrying Joseph.
We learn many things in the Torah from usage of similar words. Dina and Joseph both have strong ties to Sh’chem in the heart of the Shomron (Samaria): this is where Dina is tortured; this is where joseph is sold; this is where much later, King David’s kingdom will be split. In addition, the two brothers who “take revenge” in Dina’s case are no other than the same brothers who sell Joseph.
The midrash continues: Dina gets pregnant and bears a daughter. Jacob decides to send the child away, lest people “will speak” about him and his family, or worse, contemplate to kill the young girl. She travels to Egypt where she becomes a servant in a minister’s home, like an orphan without a family, who seems to have lost everything. No doubt, she noticed the handsome servant. Does he look similar? familiar? Do they feel “at home” with each other? Share same language? Accent? Favorite foods? Dreamworks’ “Joseph, King of Dreams” expands on the midrash further: It is that girl, whom later we know as Osnat, who brings Joseph gifts and songs when he’s thrown into the pit, and will later become Joseph’s wife, and the mother of the two tribes, Ephrayim & Menashe, the grandchildren of Jacob, Rachel & Leah.
Menashe & Ephrayim are also the ones mentioned in the Shabbat blessing we give our boys. Why not Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Moses and Aaron? Rather, Menashe & Ephrayim? But they are the ones who stand for unity and peace in the Jewish people – the grandchildren of two rival sisters; the two brothers who grow up in a foreign land, in a foreign palace, yet do not forsake their identity.
These Torah portions are always read at this time of the year, near Hanukkah, in the dark of winter, when the days are short, reminding us that though it can take time and come in unexpected ways, darkness ultimately gives way to light.


Three times a day Jews all over the world pray for Jerusalem, the city King David declared our capital more than 3000 years ago. Even if we consider this prayer “newish”, let’s say “only” 1500 years old, it would mean 1500 (years) X 365 (days/year) X 3 (times / day) X as many millions of Jews there are in the world, all together making a very huge number. And yet, it turns out that sometimes, one person, stating the obvious, can become a big deal.
It is interesting to compare the recent (2017) statement by US president Trump to the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1947 U.N. Resolution (what is it with the number 7??). Were these latter statements true game changers or did they too, in many ways, state the already obvious? Being accepted by others, is nice, whether one is a teen or a state on the verge of its 70th anniversary, and yet, in both cases, we should first know who we are for ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom.

The song – “stripes robe“:

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Don’t Stop Fighting!

The story is famous: Jacob, after 20 years in self-inflicted exile, is on route back to the Land and about to meet his brother, Esau, the one who was the reason for his departure long ago. He is all prepared for the meet-up: there’s a gift for Esau – which deserves its own drasha; the camp is split in case of war; and prayers were said too. Jacob sets a model for how one should tackle similar situations.
This is the next stage in his growth, in his establishing his self identify. At the end of last week’s reading, we saw him setting clear boundaries between himself and Lavan, his father in law. It worked, but it took 20 years to accomplish. No wonder he’s worried now. Although everything is ready, all of a sudden he gets up in the middle of night, takes his whole family and crosses the river. He is restless, going back and forth. Did he change his mind? Is he working on the next escape?
That’s when he’s left alone and “there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day”. In the well-known encounter, Jacob is asked for his name, and when he answers, the wrestling-being (angel, “ish”) says (Genesis 32:29):

כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. 29 And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’

This is not the first time Jacob fights for a blessing. He demands it of G-d. Stands up to Yitzchak (Isaac), his father. He struggles with Esau. And with Lavan. Jacob fights for the blessing; he fights for what’s important to him. The result is nothing immediate, but ultimately it’s not the result, but rather, the struggle that defines him. And what defines us as well.
The Talmud says (Eruvin 65): אדם ניכר בכוסו, כיסו וכעסו
A person is recognized by his cup, his pocket and his anger. In Hebrew, it sounds much better because of the word play (kiso, koso & ka’aso), but, regardless, the idea is that a person can be recognized / defined by what s/he drinks for (and some say, how one behaves when drunk), what one spends his money on (how much can be learned from one’s bank statement) and what angers us, what one fights for.
Jacob knew that the blessing is worth fighting for, and that’s what he begets to us. Our name has been Israel. The simplest reason is that we are the children of Jacob because only all of Jacob’s children were counted among the Jewish people, and in that sense we are the “Children” of “Israel”, Jacob. But the other reason is that we inherited the struggle, as a part of our identity. We are not called the people who obey G-d; who praise G-d; or even – who love G-d, though we might do – and teach – all these. But instead, those who struggle with G-d and people.
There are many fighting styles in many cultures. What’s common to all is – closeness. Per Jonathan Safran-Feor’s recent book, Hineni (highly recommended), we can keep close only those things we refuse to let go of; only those things we fight for.
We tend to think that’s what we’re supposed to strive for peace and quiet in our relationships, challenges, life. But too much “peacefulness”, actually, makes it difficult to hold on to whatever it is, and removes those things from our lives. Most often, fights end because of apathy. The opposite of struggle is not solving everything but being disinterested, indifferent and “done”.
There are conflicting opinions who was that angel that Jacob fought with. On some levels, it’s important: maybe it’s Esau’s angel, maybe it’s Jacob’s “other” inclination, maybe G-d. it’s possible that it doesn’t matter. What matters is the engagement.
The word used for the “wrestle” ויאבק – vaye’avek – is unusual, and per Rabbi Hirsch, is used only here. It shares its root with אבק avak, dust, thus – “to dislodge the other from his standing position on earth, to render him avak, dust”. But is also close to חיבוק, chibuk, hug, “the effort to draw someone close to oneself, to embrace”, and to the name of the river he is crossing here – יבוק Yabok.
Yaakov, the expert in juggling two opposites, here too, is working to distinguish what he should draw near and from what he should distance himself, a struggle he’s left to us as well. So much so, that this is much of what defines us.
The wrestle is not painless and results in Jacob limping. He wins but is harmed. And yet, the morning after the Torah says a strange thing:

לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ…ֹ. 32 And the sun rose on (for) him…
Rashi asks: “just for him the sun rose on that day? Doesn’t it shine for all people”? some say, the sun has therapeutic abilities and shone specially to heal Jacob’s limp but what about the simple read? I think, on that morning, Jacob got up and felt like the sun – shone for him. The trees sways in the wind – just for him. The flowers bloomed – for him. And the sky was blue –just for him. The whole world was there,smiling at him. What an incredible feeling! True, he was limping but he emerged victorious! He overcame and received the most important blessing of his life. it was far from over, but perhaps, just for a few moments, he felt absolutely great.

Shabbat Shalom.

Katonti – the dance:

And previous post about it:

By Gustave Dore, 1832-1883


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Jacob (and the) Rocks

Looking for a penny in the light (published in the Times of Israel blog)

Last Saturday night, I was invited to a sacred Rosh Hodesh Kislev women gathering. I say “sacred” in all earnestness, not because that’s how anyone of the organizers described themselves, but rather, because of how the space felt, because of the care, love and attention present. In a modest, ovely Brooklyn apartment, there were 12-15 women, most under 30 (at least one not…). When I came in, havdala was already done. There were small candles on the low round table, snacks and wine (all kosher, some homemade and most environmentally friendly). Someone prepared thoughts on the Torah portion and inspirational words from Chasidic masters; there was a guitar and songs, Jewish and others; there was time for relaxed personal sharing. Each of us comes from a different Jewish upbringing and backgrounds, from growing up ultra-Orthodox to “nothing”, but the thirst for an authentic, personal way is evident.
At the end, we all joined on the floor for an art project: In honor of the month of Kislev, the month of dreams (Jacob, Joseph and Pharaoh), darkness (with the shortest day and shortest Shabbat coming up soon) and desire for light (as evident by the festivals of this season), stuff “showed up”, for each of us to make an aromatic candle. I asked if there’s a charge, and the organizer said, that’s part of her tzedakka.
Recent studies are big on how remote and uninterested is the younger generation of American Jewry; how they are ditching Judaism, and generally, oy vey and what’s going to be with them. Aside from sounding like our parents and all the things we said we’ll never say, perhaps it’s time to look again. At least around here, Judaism / Yidishkeit is alive and well, it’s just doing much of it on its own: friends meeting for Shabbat dinners and potlucks in the park, gathering for Rosh Hodesh, planning chagim, starting new and alternative minyanim, and more.
There is an old joke about a person who loses a penny in a dark alley. When his friend tries to help him, he finds him under the street lamp. ‘Why are you looking here?’ the friend asks. ‘That’s where there’s light’, he answers.
I’m not suggesting that there is no intermarriage, disinterest, criticism of Israel and other issues that need our attention. But I would like to suggest that along with that, much is happening that isn’t yet obvious because it does not look like what we’re used to. It’s not always inside one of our institutions (and that fact alone might offend us, blinds us and makes us quick to judge, yes, more things we said we’ll never do…). Costs and attitudes, dues structure and membership requirements have driven the younger generation’s Jewishness away, and they, ironically, took it back to where it always used be: home.
To the doomsayers who tell us American Jewry is diminishing, disappearing, vanishing; to those who flash scary statistics with glaring numbers, I’d like to say, just because you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there.


Jacob Rocks 

Driving through the desert of south west Nevada, the town of Tonopa could easily be missed, if not for the Mitzpah Hotel. The Mitzpah Hotel is a historic site: until 1927 this 5 story structure was the tallest building in the State of Nevada.
Built in the early 1900’s, it was named after the Mitzpah Mine nearby, specializing in silver, and thus, sharing its name with a famous line of silver jewelry. The Mitzpah Jewelry, which is often made of two complimentary pieces, is the kind that generally was exchanged between two people who were lovers or close friends and might be separated from each other for some amount of time. It’s common to see it engraved with the verse, “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another,” which is right in the end of this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 31:49).
The reading begins and ends with “bookends”: There is Jacob’s journey to Haran, instructed by his parents to escape his brother and find a wife; and – his journey back, 20 years later. There are angels on the ladder in his dream, and angels meeting him as he – and his family – are about to enter Cana’an. And there are rocks: We begin with Jacob arranging a pillow of rocks as he sleeps along the way (where he’ll have his dream and G-d’s promise); then Jacob rolling the giant shepherds-rock off the top of the well when he sees Rachel approaching; and now, Jacob building a mound of rocks to mark the border between him and Lavan, rocks that “rock” their relationship, transforming them from hostile to more peaceful.
“Good fences make good neighbors” says Robert Frost in his poem, “Mending Wall”, perhaps because a fence is not only my way of saying, “ad kan”, you only get to go so far, but it’s also my way of saying, I respect your space over there. For Jacob and Lavan, for many (many) years, life was extremely “enmeshed” and messy. It’s a powerful moment when Jacob says, ad kan and no more. Solid, strong, self-identity comes with knowing one’s healthy boundaries.

Shabbat Shalom.

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