Monthly Archives: November 2018

From Altars to Oak Trees

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elliot Dine

“And Yaakov arrived safely in Shekhem…” (Genesis 33:18). As Seforno points out, in this verse God fulfills his end of Yaakov’s vow – “if I return safely to my father’s house” (28:21); and yet this verse also sets up the story of Dinah with a tragic irony. Yaakov arrives in Shechem knowing God has been with him and protected him, knowing that he has struggled with man and God and overcome and will be blessed for it. He has suffered for taking the blessing from Esav, and yet he has done penitence for it, literally returning a blessing to Esav in 33:11. Indeed, Yaakov at that moments feels confident and secure enough to consider himself as worthy of his new name and worthy of a place among the patriarchs. Thus, he sets up an altar and names it “E-l, E-lohei Yisrael” (33:20). He uses the same phrase as God describes himself to Yaakov in his dream – “E-lohei Avraham Avikah V’e-lohei Yitzchak” (28:13) – and calls himself by a new name that, as the Ha’amek Davar points out, God has not yet bestowed onto him. Yaakov thinks he has fulfilled his religious mission, making up with his brother and returning to the land with a full family, and therefore can take his place in history among his own forefathers.

And yet Yaakov is gravely mistaken in his assessment, as the story of Dinah and Shekhem makes abundantly clear. A key part of Avraham and Yitzchak’s lives centered around ensuring that their children would not marry Canaanites. And yet in the story of Dinah, Yaakov does not fulfill this mission, inviting and saying nothing in response to Shechem and Hamor’s offer to marry into Yaakov’s family and vice versa. Moreover, Yaakov’s children deceive Shekhem and Chamor in a manner like how Yaakov deceived Esav and Yitzchak, leaving a trail of dead bodies and forcing Yaakov once again to flee from a violent situation. The two reasons Yaakov had to leave his parents’ house, to flee violence after trickery and to marry non-Canaanite women, recur in the story of Shekhem, indicating that Yaakov has not yet fully escaped or repented for his past.

So, what, if anything, must Yaakov do or experience to move on from his tragic mistake? Clearly, he has suffered and made up for his wronging of Esav, yet Yaakov neglects how he and Rivkah not only wronged Esav, but also deceived Yitzchak. And for that he has not yet been punished nor done Teshuvah.  We see how Yaakov and Rivkah are punished for this deception a few verses later when we read, “And Devorah, Rivkah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under the oak under Bethel, and it was called the oak of weeping” (34:8).  As the Midrash points out (and as quoted by Rashi and Ramban), the weeping and death of Devorah is hinting to the notification to Yaakov that Rivkah has died. And in the language of Ramban, Rivkah does not merit seeing her son return, she and her son are punished for their deception of Yitzchak in quite a powerful and sad way. And it is following this punishment and this tragedy that Yaakov fully merits receiving his new name of Yisrael. For in the next verse God blesses Yaakov with the blessing that his forefathers received, namely how his children will inherit the land, and bestows him with the name Yisrael. Only after Yaakov receive his punishment for deceiving Yitzchak can he become Yisrael and take his place in religious history as one of the three patriarchs.

While I have interpreted this story as one of punishment cleansing Yaakov and allowing him to receive his true blessing, it is also important to note that Ramban, while building off the Midrash, puts a slightly different twist on it, and views the blessing as a blessing of comfort following tragedy. God comforts mourners through covenants and blessings. Yaakov and Rivkah do not receive this punishment to do the full measure of penitence, but rather in God’s kindness he blesses Yaakov to comfort him. As a fellow SBM alum, Rabbi Jason Strauss, points out, for our time and place that is a much more powerful read, for we cannot nor should we contend that bad things happen to punish people for their mistakes, rather just as God does here, we must confront tragedies with words of comfort and blessing.

Elliot Dine (SBM 2010, ’15) is currently pursuing a PhD in molecular biology at Princeton University.

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Esav Shrugged

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The opening of Parshat Vayishlach makes difficult reading for fans of Jewish assertiveness.  Yaakov relates to apparent alpha-dog Esav with over-the-top obsequiousness – “grovel, grovel, cringe, bow, stoop, fall.”

But explicit power relationships can be deceptive. Yaakov successfully refuses Esav’s repeated efforts to establish a continuing relationship.  Esav, meanwhile, yields to Yaakov’s insistence that he accept his enormous gift.  Sometimes the tail really is wagging the dog.  But why was it so important to Yaakov that Esav accept the gift, and why was Esav so resistant?

Rabbi Shimon Sofer, a grandson of the Chatam Sofer who was martyred in Auschwitz, offers a series of politically and psychologically incisive explanations that may add up to a coherent reading.

“I have much; my brother, let what is yours be yours” – meaning, that if Yaakov had no possessions, Esav would be compelled to support his younger brother.  Therefore, Esav said, “Let what is yours be yours,” so that I don’t need to give you anything and the much that I have remains mine.  So the overall intent is “I have much if what is yours will be yours.”

Rabbi Sofer starts from the premise that any hatred Esav felt toward Yaakov would have no effect on his understanding or fulfillment of his obligations toward Yaakov. Esav and Yaakov are socially intertwined in ways that Esav cannot escape, and perhaps cannot imagine escaping. So it is in Esav’s self-interest for Yaakov to be independently wealthy.  Esav fears that Yaakov is deliberately giving him a gift so large as to leave him no choice but to accept Yaakov and his family as dependents.

We know, but Esav does not, that the gift represents a judiciously chosen share of Yaakov’s assets. Yaakov knows that it is considered rude to attack a person whose gifts you have accepted, because accepting gifts is a way of acknowledging feudal obligations. Most feudal obligations are at heart a trade of economic benefits for security. So Yaakov insists, and perhaps Esav eventually realizes that Yaakov can bear the expense and accepts the transaction at face value.

We can explain why Yaakov insisted that he take the gift from him.  The way of honored officials is that even though in their hearts they want and desire gifts and bribes, nonetheless it is beneath their dignity to accept them.  Therefore, they want the giver to persist and insist.  That way, they end up with both, the bribe/gift that their heart lusts for, and also their dignity, that they did not wish to take it from him without being greatly pestered, and they took it only because they would not withstand the giver and humiliate him by refusing to accept it.  Thus “Yaakov persisted/insisted, and he took it.”

On this reading, Esav is in charge throughout.  He intends to have Yaakov persist, and he intends ultimately to consent under seeming duress. His goal is to reverse the gratitude framework; Yaakov should owe Esav for the tovat hana’ah gained by having such a prominent person willing to accept his gift, rather than Esav owing Yaakov for the gift itself.

Halakhah recognizes this tovat hana’ah as having cash value. Very prominent people can marry women by accepting gifts from them. Nonetheless, in most contexts it is a polite/political fiction. Politicians strive to create the impression that they are stooping to accept gifts, or willing to go on junkets for the sake of learning about policy, but lobbyists expect to receive something in exchange for the amenities they provide politicians. To quote Don Corleone, “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift.”

We can say additionally that according to the ways of ‘etiquette,’ if A sends a gift to B, and B returns a lesser gift than he received, it seems as if he is thereby surrendering; if he returns an exactly equal gift, this seems like miserly precision; so B therefore sends A more than he received initially.  So Esav realized that etiquette would require him to send Yaakov a gift even larger than Yaakov was sending, therefore he said: “Let what is yours be yours,” but Yaakov indicated that he did not wish a return gift by saying to him “I have everything.”

Perhaps Rabbi Sofer read anthropology?  Wikipedia provides the following description of a Pacific Northwest custom called potlatch:

Dorothy Johansen describes the dynamic: “In the potlatch, the host in effect challenged a guest chieftain to exceed him in his ‘power’ to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his ‘power’ was diminished.”

On this reading, Yaakov’s enormous gift is an expression of dominance, while Esav’s ultimate acceptance is a gesture of submission.

So far we’ve drawn models for Yaakov and Esav’s interaction from Native American culture, feudalism, and The Godfather.  Rabbi Sofer’s reading is also compatible with a fourth model drawn from Ayn Rand’s critique of altruism. Let me acknowledge upfront that this is likely to be more ethically controversial than any of the others.

Rand famously or infamously argued that altruism, or doing things for the sake of others, is the root of all evil.  Actions can be ethical only if done for one’s own sake; thus a programmatic essay was titled “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

This counterintuitive framing is often misunderstood as endorsing boorishness or a pure focus on personal pleasure and material or emotional self-interest. That this is a misunderstanding is easily demonstrated by the fact that all her novels revolve around an ethical hero(ine) sacrificing their material self-interest, even committing suicide, for the benefit of someone they love. Rather, Rand argues that one must choose virtue because that is the kind of person you wish to be, not because it benefits anyone else.

Why does this matter?  Rand argues that virtuous people expect no return for their virtuous deeds; they don’t feel “owed” because they have acted for your material self-interest against their own, because their actions were done for their own sakes.  Virtuous philanthropists do not see themselves as superior to the recipients of their charity.  By contrast, altruists always feel that they are owed more than they gave.  Charity recipients owe them gratitude, and if economic positions reverse, they owe their former benefactors larger alms than they received. (Consider in this light the letters that schools often send to alumni who received scholarships, no matter how much those alumni contributed to the school environment as students, and even if those alumni paid more in tuition than the marginal cost of their schooling.)

Esav suspects, or understands, that Yaakov’s gift is altruistic in nature.  Accepting it will impose burdens of gratitude and reciprocity on him that he has no interest in assuming.  So he tries to refuse it.  But Yaakov insists.

Why does Yaakov insist?  Very likely he is also aware that gifts often come tangled in implicit strings. He may suspect that Esav is genuinely altruistic, and therefore will feel himself bound to reciprocate.  Or, he may consider that regardless of Esav’s own philosophic convictions, he is embedded in a society of altruists who will hold him to the obligations they recognize as stemming from gift-acceptance.

The common denominator of all four models is that gifting is often not a one-way transaction. Gifts can be Trojan Horses.  We should look at their teeth before accepting them; and we should look very carefully in the mirror before and after giving.  Our goal should be a society in which givers are indifferent to gratitude, and therefore thanks can be freely given.

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How Should One Relate to Modes of Torah Interpretation that One Does Not Believe In?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

How should one relate to modes of Torah interpretation that one does not believe in? I intend this question in two ways.

First, how does one relate to hermeneutical systems that one sees as imposed on texts rather than as organic to the text, as producing eisegesis rather than exegesis? Second, how does one relate to interpretations developed in the service of broad philosophic positions that one does not share?

The first question arises often for me when reading Chassidic commentaries. An underlying presumption of such commentaries is that the exoteric historical narrative of chumash (but not only the narrative, and not only Chumash, or even only Tanakh) is properly interwoven with, supplemented, and sometimes supplanted by an esoteric psychospiritual narrative.

The esoteric narrative often emerges by employing some of the more radical techniques of classical midrash. Here is an example, drawn from Toldot Yaakov Yosef1to Genesis 27:22. “הקול קול יעקב והידים ידי עשו” is generally translated as “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav”; Toldot Yaakov Yosef, however, translates “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, as are the hands, the (very) hands (previously) of Esav”. Exoterically, the verse describes Yitzchak’s confusion as to which son was standing before him to receive his blessing; esoterically, it tells us that involving one’s entire body in the ecstasy of prayer sanctifies the physical, specifically by clapping, so that the hands previously identified with the material become servants of the spiritual.

On a purely syntactic level, this reading requires us to read across the parallelism of the verse in a kind of slantrhyme. The identical tactic is given on Sanhedrin 57b as the basis for Rabbi Yishmael’s position that abortion is included within the Noachide prohibition against bloodshedding. Genesis 9:6 “שופך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך” is usually translated as “The shedder of human blood, by a human must his blood be shed”, but here is translated “The shedder of the blood of a human within a human, his blood must be shed”.

No claim is made in either case that this reading is the exclusive or even primarymeaning of the verse, and I think that playing with punctuation to produce multiple meanings is a standard poetic technique. So for me the fundamental question is not whether the literary tactic is compelling, but rather whether I think that the resulting interpretation is a plausible intent of this section of Chumash.

My answer to this depends to some extent on another question: To what extent is this interpretation interwoven with the exoteric narrative? For example: Does Toldot Yaakov Yosef claim that on some level Yitzchak intended this when exclaiming it, or would he be content to say that Yitzchak simply channeled the Divine intent unconsciously, he “prophesied without knowing what he had prophesied”, in the rabbinic phrase? I would be happier if the former were true, if this interpretation owed at least some fealty to the narrative context.

On that assumption, Toldot Yaakov Yosef must claim that Yitzchak was on some level aware of Yaakov’s deception. Even more strongly, he was celebrating Yaakov’s capacity to engage in the deception, to utilize the “hands” without losing his “voice”.

And I do think that a close reading of the exoteric narrative lends much support to the thesis that Yitzchak was a willing party to his own deception. Which means, in the end, that Toldot Yaakov Yosef’s reading is useful to me. And yet, I still find it hard to allow any validity to the claim that this verse is in any sense about the importance of being a clapper during davening.

Toldot Yaakov Yosef offers the above reading as a prefatory aside to a discussion of the opening of this week’s parshah. “Yaakov left B’er Sheva, and went toward Charan. Vayifga bamakom…” Any reader will notice immediately that “bamakom”, “(untranslatable preposition) the place”, is problematic, as the place has not previously been identified. Classical midrash identifies it either as Mount Moriah (on his way to the Akeidah, Avraham saw the place from afar – Genesis 22:4) or as G-d (the place of all existence). The former reading raises geographic difficulties, which are resolved in various ways. The latter fits well in context – a prophetic dream ensues immediately (although for Talmud Berakhot 28 it seems to refer to a separate act of prayer)  – but Ibn Ezra argues that it is anachronistic, in that G-d is not referred to as “the place” in Tanakh, only in rabbinic literature. Radak and Seforno accordingly postulate a well- known wayfarer’s station in that location, and indeed an entire institution of such stations on major roads.

Toldot Yaakov Yosef adopts the position that “bamakom” refers to G-d. He does not stop there, however – Be’er sheva refers to a kabbalistic Service known as the Seven, Charan refers to Divine Anger, and “vayifga bamakom” means that Yaakov became subject to the Divine Aspect of Justice as the result of leaving the highest level of service (in which he acquired the “hands”).

I cannot follow him down that path. This raises for me the question of whether I can legitimately use the product of his initial steps. But I want to explore that question in a broader context.

Over the years, I have had a number of friends who raved about the beauty and depth of kabbalistic thought without, so far as I could tell, in any way believing that the metaphysical structures described by kabbalah had any “real” existence. For them, the ten sefirot, the worlds of thought and deed, and the like were useful metaphors for aspects of the human psyche, and no more; they did not require any notion of transcendence or Divinity. I often wondered (aloud, and, no doubt irritatingly, to them) if this was fair to the texts and authors they studied and taught. More strongly, I wondered whether the key question was not belief but experience, whether it was possible to meaningfully read these texts without having had experiences that corresponded to their notion of reality – were they colorblind critics teaching about art? For myself, I remain unaware of having had any such experiences, and therefore I always resisted citing such texts.

So it is much caution that I end this devar Torah by citing a metaphor from the Zohar.

Zohar 1:148b

The other, younger (son of Rabbi Yitzchak) said:
“Vayifga bamakom; he lay over there because the sun had set; (he took of the rocks of the makom and put underneath his head” –
What is the meaning of “vayifga bamakom”?
This can be compared to a king who visits a lady – he needs to entreat her and to perfume her with words, so that she will not seem utterly available to him.
Not only that – even if he has a bed of gold and woven tapestries in his castle to sleep on, whereas she makes do with a stone bed on the ground in a fortress of straw, he should leave his and sleep on hers so as to give her satisfaction, so that their companionship will be unified without constraint.
This is as we learn here, for once he came to her, what is written? “He took from the rocks of the place and put under his head, and he lay down in that place” – so as to give her satisfaction, as even the rocks of her house are beloved to him to sleep on”.

The Zohar is plainly talking about the unification of various aspects of the Divine, about which I have nothing to say. But the courting/marital advice is beautiful, and there is one literary/psychological element that is tempting, namely the parallelism between Yaakov’s relationship with G-d and his relationship with Rachel, where he also saw hardship as joy in the service of love. Is it fair to extract those and leave the kabbalah behind? I welcome your comments.

This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2010

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What Kri’at Yam Suf Can Teach Us About Leaving Lavan

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davida Kollmar

This week’s Parshah is the story of Yaakov’s sojourn in Charan, from beginning to end. It ends when Hashem tells Yaakov that it is time to return to Eretz Canaan. After receiving the assent of Rachel and Leah, Yaakov packs up his family and possessions and runs away without notifying Lavan. But eventually Lavan finds out. Bereishit 31:22-23 reads as follows (translations from Sefaria):

וַיֻּגַּ֥ד לְלָבָ֖ן בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֑י כִּ֥י בָרַ֖ח יַעֲקֹֽב׃

וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־אֶחָיו֙ עִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּרְדֹּ֣ף אַחֲרָ֔יו דֶּ֖רֶךְ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים וַיַּדְבֵּ֥ק אֹת֖וֹ בְּהַ֥ר הַגִּלְעָֽד׃

On the third day, Lavan was told that Yaakov had fled.

So he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him a distance of seven days, catching up with him in the hill country of Gilead.

The phrase “a distance of seven days” is strange. If the text had meant an amount of time, it could have said that Lavan pursued Yaakov “for seven days” (which is indeed how Ramban understands it). Rashi notes this oddity and makes the following comment:

דרך שבעת ימים. כָּל אוֹתָן ג’ יָמִים שֶׁהָלַךְ הַמַּגִּיד לְהַגִּיד לְלָבָן הָלַךְ יַעֲקֹב לְדַרְכּוֹ, נִמְצָא, יַעֲקֹב רָחוֹק מִלָּבָן שִׁשָּׁה יָמִים, וּבַשְּׁבִיעִי הִשִּׂיגוֹ לָבָן. לָמַדְנוּ שֶׁכָּל מַה שֶּׁהָלַךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּשִׁבְעָה יָמִים הָלַךְ לָבָן בְּיוֹם אֶחָד (שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וַיִּרְדֹּף אַחֲרָיו דֶּרֶךְ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, וְלֹא נֶאֱמַר וַיִרְדֹּף אַחֲרָיו שִׁבְעַת יָמִים):

A distance of seven days. During the three days that the messenger had gone to tell Lavan, Yaakov went on his way. Consequently, Yaakov was six days apart from Lavan, and yet on the seventh day alone Lavan caught him. We have learned that the entire distance that Yaakov traveled in seven days, Lavan traveled in one day (as it says, “and he pursued him a distance of seven days,” and it does not say, “and he pursued him for seven days”). (Genesis Rabbah 74:6).

In sum, Rashi is saying that the reason why the Pasuk says that Lavan travels “a distance of seven days” is because he travels what would generally be a seven-day journey in one day (Yaakov had travelled for four days, and they started out a three day distance apart). But Rashi does not state why this miracle was able to occur. Those details are filled in by Or HaChaim:

דרך שבעת ימים. יש לחקור למה נשתנה יעקב בהליכה זו שלא קפצה לו הארץ כמשפט לאוהבי שמו, ומצינו שאפילו לאליעזר עבד אביו קפצה לו הארץ, (ב”ר נ”ט) ומן הנכון אליו יאות עשות גם להצילו מהרודף ולא היה משיגו לבן. ואולי כי הגיד לו האדון ברוך הוא בזה שאין צריך לברוח כי הגם שהדביקו לבן היוכל דבר דבר אליו אפילו דיבור, וזולת זה היה מראה ח”ו כי לא יכול הצילו מיד לבן, וגדול הנס הזה שהגם שהוא בעל בחירה ימנע מעשות בחירתו ביעקב:

A distance of seven days. We must examine why the earth did not “fold” under Jacob on this occasion to facilitate his journey (in response to the urging of the angel) as it had done when he was on the way to Charan at the beginning of our פרשה. If the earth even “folded” for Eliezer, Abraham’s servant at the time (as we know from Bereshit Rabbah 59,11), it would certainly have seemed appropriate that the same should happen to the righteous Jacob, especially since he then would have been out of danger of pursuit. Perhaps the failure of the earth to “fold” was a way of G’d telling Jacob that he did not need to flee, that even if Laban were to catch up with him he would not even be able to speak to him offensively or threateningly. Had G’d made the earth “fold” for him, Jacob might have thought that G’d had no other means of putting him out of Laban’s reach. If G’d had not spoken to Laban even קפיצת הדרך would not have sufficed to allow Jacob to escape Laban and his sons. The greatness of the miracle was that although Laban possessed freedom of choice he was prevented from exercising it against Jacob.

Or HaChaim is not focusing on Lavan’s speed, but rather the fact that Hashem did not make a miracle for Yaakov so that he could run away faster. Nevertheless, the idea behind it could be the same. The reason why Lavan was able catch Yaakov was because Hashem wanted him to.

This story brings to mind another great escape, that of the Jews from Mitzrayim. There are many parallels between that story (at least Rashi’s read of it) and this one:

  • Yaakov/the Jews leave a foreign country to return to Eretz Canaan after being told by Hashem that they should do so.
  • When they leave, they take all their belongings out with them.
  • It takes three days for the realization that Yaakov/the Jews will not come back (see Rashi to Shemot 14:5; though the message does not reach Pharaoh until the fourth day).
  • The antagonist is informed by an unnamed messenger – the word “וַיֻּגַּ֥ד” is used in both places (Bereishit 31:22, Shemot 14:5).
  • The antagonist takes other people with him and runs after the party that has left.
  • A member of the antagonist’s party travels the same distance in one day that it took the fleeing party to travel in several days (Lavan, Bereishit 31:23; Pharaoh’s messenger, Rashi to Shemot 14:5).
  • The antagonist catches up to the fleeing party on the seventh day (Bereishit 31:23, Rashi to Shemot 14:5).
  • The fleeing party is not harmed by the antagonist after Hashem’s intervention (He appears to Lavan in a dream and tells him not to harm Yaakov in Bereishit 31:24; and He splits the sea and drowns the Egyptians in Shemot 14).
  • The reason why the antagonist is able to catch up to the fleeing party is because Hashem wants him to (see Shemot 13-14; this may be why they travel in a roundabout way and wait for Pharaoh to reach them).

I think that there are two main reasons why Hashem could have wanted Lavan to catch up to Yaakov, and Pharaoh to catch up to the Jews.

The first is based on the idea stated by Or HaChaim: “The greatness of the miracle was that although Laban possessed freedom of choice he was prevented from exercising it against Jacob.” Similarly, at Kri’at Yam Suf, Hashem hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that Egypt will know that Hashem is God (Shemot 14:4), thereby limiting Pharaoh’s free choice. The commonality is that sometimes, Hashem will limit free choice in order to make Himself known and to protect the Jews; but others will only get the message if the Jews are placed in a situation of danger where it is obvious that they are only saved because of that lack of free choice.

A second possibility is that Hashem wants Yaakov to make a clean break from Lavan, and the Jews to make a clean break from Mitzrayim. If Yaakov and the Jews had succeeded in running away, it is possible that they could have later gone back and pretended that nothing had happened. Hashem does not want this; instead, He forces Yaakov to confront Lavan, and the Jews to confront Pharaoh. In order to make a clean break, Yaakov and the Jews must make a statement: “We are leaving now, you know about it, and there is nothing you can do to stop us.” It is only by doing this that they are able to return to Eretz Canaan as independent people and restart anew there.

Davida Kollmar (SBM ’14,’16,’17, MA ’16, WWBM ’18) is studying for her Masters degree in Data Science at NYU, is a editor for The Lehrhaus, and is the former program administrator for CMTL.

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Does G-d Write Thrillers? The Role of Suspense in Scripture

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

According to Bing, suspense is “a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen”, or alternatively, ”a quality in a work of fiction that arouses excited expectation or uncertainty about what may happen”.  This second definition is in error – nothing about literary suspense is affected by categorization as fiction vs, nonfiction. Life can be suspenseful, as in the first definition; and a retelling of life can be as suspenseful as an imaginary narrative.  

An author retelling a story from life, however, does not have to convey all the suspense of the original, or may choose to artificially create suspense where none existed. Do these choices matter? Do they affect the meaning of the story, or only the enjoyment and attentiveness of readers?

This question matters to me religiously because G-d makes the clear choice to heighten suspense in this week’s parshah.  He does this both artificially and by including the time element in the story. Pay close attention to Genesis 27:30:


כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר כִּלָּ֣ה יִצְחָק֘ לְבָרֵ֣ךְ אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹב֒


אַ֣ךְ יָצֹ֤א יָצָא֙ יַעֲקֹ֔ב מֵאֵ֥ת פְּנֵ֖י יִצְחָ֣ק אָבִ֑יו

וְעֵשָׂ֣ו אָחִ֔יו בָּ֖א מִצֵּידֽוֹ

It happened

when Yitzchak finished blessing Yaakov

It happened

Yaakov akh yatzo yatza (=had just left? was just leaving?) from the presence of Yitzchak his father,

and Esav his brother ba (was coming? had come?) from his hunt

The repetition of “vayehi” (=It happened) seems to serve no purpose at all other than to artificially heighten suspense by making us wait to find out what happened.  Similarly, even if Yaakov and Esav nearly met, that seems to have no effect on the substance of the story; what would have been different had Esav shown up ten minutes later? So why does G-d go to such literary and descriptive effort to make us feel this suspense?

The midrashei aggada do their best to make the story even more exciting.  According to Rav Ayvo in Midrash Rabbah, Yitzchak’s house had two doors, and Yaakov left by one as Esav entered by the other. But the Rabbis thought this insufficient.  Rather, the doors to Yitzchak’s house opened inward, and Yaakov hid behind one of them (in one version because he heard Esav’s footsteps) and slipped out after Esav passed. In Hadar Zekeinim’s version Yitzchak’s doors ordinarily opened outward, but the angel Gavriel reverse their hinges just in time. In any case, Esav delayed as long as he did only because angels kept untying the snares he set to catch the game for his father’s meal.

According to, “Suspense is a literary device that authors use to keep their readers’ interest alive throughout the work. It is a feeling of anticipation that something risky or dangerous is about to happen. The purpose of using this type of anxiety in literature is to make readers more concerned about the characters, and to form sympathetic association with them.”  So perhaps the sense that Yaakov was in danger from Esav helps us sympathize with him even if we have moral qualms about his actions. But that seems to me an insufficient justification. In any case, we may instead sympathize more with Esav, who lost out by only a second, and therefore clearly through no fault of his own.

So we need to step back and ask a more fundamental question. Was Yaakov in danger from Esav?  Rashbam here makes an astounding comment.

“ויהי אך יצא יצא” –

להגיד ניסים שנעשו ליעקב בא הכתוב, שאילו הקדים עשו לבא רגע אחד קודם, לא נתברך יעקב

“It happened as Yaakov was just leaving” –

Scripture here comes to tell us the miracles that were done for Yaakov

that if Esav had come one moment earlier, Yaakov would not have been blessed.

Rashbam apparently thinks that the blessing was at risk, but not Yaakov’s life.  His position is strengthened when we recall that Yaakov himself worries to his mother only about what his father will think of him if he is exposed, not about what his brother will do to him.

On the other hand, midrashim reasonably claim that the point of Esav coming directly “from his hunt” is to remind us that he was armed. Moreover, Esav reacts to learning of Yaakov’s deceit by planning to kill Yaakov after Yitzchak’s death.  I don’t think we can be certain that concern for his father would have restrained his vengeance had he caught Yaakov in person. Finally, Rashbam’s reading does not explain why the Torah tells us that Yaakov was just leaving, rather than sticking with the key point, which is that Yitzchak had just finished giving the blessing. So I don’t find his reading sufficient either.

We therefore need to step back again, to ask an even more fundamental question. Why doesn’t Yaakov express any concern to his mother about being caught by Esav? I think the simplest explanation is that he expects Esav to be gone for long enough to leave him plenty of time to receive the blessing.  This is supported by Yitzchak’s expression of surprise when Yaakov arrives so rapidly with his food.

If Esav arrived earlier than expected, we cannot have angels untying his snares to delay him.  Rather, as Yaakov posits to explain his own timing, the angels must have been driving the animals into Esav’s snares.  The purpose of the miracles therefore is not to prevent Esav and Yaakov from meeting, but to ensure that they almost meet.  Therefore – what prevents them from meeting is not that Esav comes late, but rather that Yaakov leaves in time.

Is his leaving in time a miracle?

Or HaChayyim offers a totally different perspective on the story, one that he acknowledges reads “yatzo yatza” differently than Chazal.  He suggests that Yaakov left because he heard Esav coming.  Moreover, he contends that the repetition of vayehi is not intended to convey suspense. Rather, he cites the standard midrashic contention that vayehi introduces misfortune.  The repetition is intended to emphasize the great pain that Yaakov was in throughout this episode.

ורמז אל הצער שחש יעקב

שימצא כגנב במחתרת בפני אביו

כשהרגיש בביאת עשו:

This hints at the pain that Yaakov felt

when fearing that he would be caught like a thief in a tunnel before his father

when he heard Esav coming.

Or HaChayyim’s specific textual arguments do not compel me. But his perspective opens up one more possibility.

Why would angels intervene to rush Esav back, if we’re rooting for Yaakov to leave in time to escape?  Why is it important for the Torah to create suspense, to make us feel that Esav could have caught Yaakov, with catastrophic consequences?  The best answer is that the issue was really contingent, that Esav might have caught Yaakov, and the outcome hinged on Yaakov’s free-willed decision to leave when he did.

Why would that matter?  In my reading, Yaakov believes that he has plenty of time, as in the normal course of nature Esav won’t arrive for hours. The ordinary and right thing for Yaakov to do is to remain in situ and thank his father, and to bask in his victory.  But he is terribly uncomfortable with what he has done; he feels, as Or HaChayyim put it, “like a thief in his tunnel”. So he rushes (yatzo yatza) out.

If Yaakov had stayed a moment longer than necessary – if he had had no pangs of conscience and seen his actions as untroubling, because the ends justify the means – Esav would have caught him, and very likely killed him.  G-d and his angels made sure that Yaakov had the slimmest margin of error. But he passed the test.

People who are paralyzed by moral complexity cannot lead.  Yaakov acted, and succeeded. But people who feel no pain when confronting morally complex situations generally should not be allowed to lead.  This is especially the case when leadership includes genuine power over others, as in the blessing Yitzchak gives Yaakov.


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What Did Yaakov Say to Yitzchak?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eli Finkelstein

ויאמר יעקב אל־אביו אנכי עשו בכרך עשיתי כאשר דברת אלי קום־נא שבה ואכלה מצידי בעבור תברכני נפשך

The most straightforward translation of what Yaakov told his father is: “Yaakov said to his father: ‘I am Esav, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me.’” This seems flatly deceitful; Yaakov is not Esav, is not the first-born, and received no relevant instructions from Yitzchak. Can Yaakov’s untruths be defended?  The diverse approaches taken by parshanim to defend Yaakov’s untruths present us with very different views of his character.

Rashi, taking the cue of Chazal, contends that Yaakov did not actually lie. Instead, this is what he really said: “It is I bringing this to you; Esav is your firstborn. I have done many things that you have told me.” The few words Rashi adds changes the entire dynamic. Instead of Yaakov as trickster, underhandedly stealing his brother’s blessing, Yaakov is laying out clues that Yitzchak would see if he wanted to see them.  He puts the onus on his father to discover the truth, and to accept the blame if he fails to discover it.

By contrast, Radak acknowledges that Yaakov deceived Yitzchak, but justifies Yaakov’s lies.

ואין זה תימה, כי יודע היה יעקב כי הוא ראוי יותר לברכה מאחיו, ורוח הנבואה שתשרה על יצחק לברכו יותר יתעשת האלהים לברכתו מברכת אחיו, כי הוא רצוי לא-ל יותר ממנו, וחלוף הדברים במקומות כאלה אינם גנאי וחילול לצדיק.

But this is not astonishing, since Yaakov was aware that he was more fit for blessing than his brother, and that the spirit of nevuah/prophecy that would rest on Yitzchak to bless him would cause God’s blessing to linger more if he received the blessing than if his brother did, since he was a more pious man. Saying the opposite of the truth in situations such as these is not a shame and disgrace for a righteous person.

Radak accepts that in certain situations, when a Tzaddik recognizes that what he or she is doing is for the greater good, that it is allowed to lie to achieve that goal.

Or HaChayim takes a third approach.  He argues that legally, Yaakov was Esav:

פי’: להיות שקנה הבכורה מעשו, ,הנה הוא נעשה עשו לצד בחינת הבכורה, כי (לא) [לה] יקרא עשו בכורו.

ואומרו “עשיתי כאשר דברת אלי”, פירוש: כי טעם שצוה לעשו הוא כי הוא בנו הבכור, וכיון שנטל הבכורה, כאילו הדבר בא אליו:

This means that since Yaakov purchased the birthright from Esav, he had become Esav in the aspect of the Birthright, and for this reason did Yitzchak call Esav his firstborn.

So when he said “I have done as you told me,” this meant that the reason Yitzchak commanded Esav is because he was his  firstborn son, and since Yaakov took the Birthright, it was as if the command was given to him.

Or HaChayim, like Rashi, contends that Yaakov did not actually lie to his father to get the Berachah. But rather than reparsing Yaakov’s words, he redefines Yaakov’s person: Yaakov, in this legal instance, is indeed Esav. Because he purchased the birthright, he purchased the personality of Esav as the firstborn, the one who owns the right to the Berachah.

Was Yaakov a man who never erred, who, sometimes through technicalities, was able to protect his status as a Tzaddik? Was he a man who recognized that he needed to bend the rules for the greater good? Was he someone who understood the power of a sale, and the nature of birthright, better than the rest of his family? Or, as some modern readers prefer, was Yaakov wrong in deceiving his father, a mistake which caused him suffering through the actions of his own sons? How we choose to understand Yaakov’s actions is a consequence  of how we each want to understand the Avot.

Eli Finkelstein (SBM ‘18) is a third year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, NY.

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If Sarah Imeinu had Died in Pittsburgh

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Rabbi Barry Kornblau posted the following this week, which expressed my thoughts and feelings as well: “At this time of our need and grief, our American Jewish community is currently experiencing an outpouring of love and support from others outside our community. In addition to thanking those who offer such assistance now, we Jews must also recommit, now, to our principled tradition of extending hands and hearts of love to other communities who, in their present and future times of grief and need, will appreciate our support.”

This devar Torah is in large measure an expression of the same idea.

You can learn a lot about your neighbors when it comes time to bury your dead, and also about your own place in society. But some of what you learn may be wrong.  What did Avraham learn when it came time to bury Sarah? How much of what he learned was correct?

When Avraham rises from his grief, he turns to the Hittites and says:

גר ותושב אנכי עמכם

תנו לי אחזת קבר עמכם

ואקברה את מתי מלפני

I am a ger and toshav among you

Give me a graveholding among you

and I will bury my dead from before me.

The meaning of the phrase ger and toshav is unclear.  To begin with, it may be a compound – “I am fully a ger and fully a toshav” – or else a hendiadys – “I am some hybrid of ger and toshav”.   Neither ger nor toshav is clear, either, and both must be contrasted with ezrach and with yoshev. Let’s assume that a toshav is more firmly entrenched than a ger, so we’ll call a toshav a resident and a ger an alien.

Avraham uses words that seem bold in context.  “Give me”, rather than ‘sell me’; “graveholding”, rather than ‘grave’; and “among you”, rather than ‘anywhere’.  A straightforward way of reading this is to see Avraham as seeing to upgrade his status. Until now he has had, and sought, no permanent connection to this land and culture; creating a family plot in the local cemetery will make him a local, and perhaps a citizen.

This reading is strongly opposed by traditional commentators, for both global and local reasons. Globally, the notion of Avraham genuinely wanting integration with Hittites seems a violation of Jewish destiny, and a failure to understand the message of the Covenant Between the Pieces that the cultures of Canaan are on an irreversible downward moral and religious trajectory.

Note however that Rashbam on last week’s parashah criticizes Avraham for making a pact with the Philistines, and even suggests that the Akeidah was a punishment for making it, because it showed a lack of faith in God’s promise that his descendants would inherit the Land.  Perhaps Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak proved his faith, but he never understood why he had been tested?

Locally, the negotiation ends, at Avraham’s insistence, in the purchase of Ephron’s cave as an entirely private burial ground. The burden of proof rests on anyone arguing that Avraham initially intended a different plot of land and/or a gift rather than a purchase.

But there seem to be real developments in the course of the negotiation. Avraham initially expresses interest only in the cave “which is at the edge of his field”, but ends up paying for Ephron’s entire field. Avraham’s last words to Ephron replace the phrase “bury from before me” with “bury there”. So there is room to argue that Avraham initially wanted integration, but somehow feels/is rejected, and changes his goal from to mere toleration.

We might blame this on Ephron. He is the one who introduces the field. He describes the cave as “in it” rather than “on its edge.” Perhaps the community was sincere in telling Avraham that any one of them would freely give him a burial space, and perhaps the Cave was close enough to an existing cemetery to be considered an annex. But Ephron’s introduction of the field made a gift obviously too extravagant.

Or we might blame this on the Hittites as a whole. They never agreed to give Avraham his own space, only to allow him to bury Sarah in any of their own graves. Their goal was to make Avraham a permanent refugee, with no rights except by sufferance.

Alternatively, the Hittites demanded that Avraham bury Sarah in one of their graves, with no distinctiveness at all. James Loeffler recently posted a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that sums this reading up:

The liberal world has sought to dissolve the prejudice between Jews and Gentiles by preaching tolerance and good-will… [But there’s] a curious, partly unconscious, cultural imperialism in theories of tolerance which look forward to a complete destruction of all racial distinctions…The majority group expects to devour the minority group by way of assimilation. This is a painless death, but it is death nevertheless.

Avraham recoiled, and chose full separation with tenuous tolerance over assimilation.

Or Hachaim, perhaps uniquely among traditional commentators, argues that Avraham was making a rights-based argument that depended on his outsider status.

ויש לך לדעת כי כל תורתנו הקדושה היא שכליית,

ובפרט בענייני ההנהגה הארצית,

וכמו שאנו מתנהגים בגר היושב עמנו,

כן יתחייב שכליות יושבי הארץ להנהיג ביניהם

להחיות אדם שהוא גר ותושב עמהם

ולתת לו מתנת חנם.

והיא טענת אברהם גר ותושב אנכי … תנו לי,

ודקדק לומר גר ולא הספיק לומר תושב,

המכוון לומר שהגם שאני גר ואיני מכם, אעפ”כ הריני תושב.

You must know that all of our holy Torah is in accord with reason,

especially in matters of national administration,

and (therefore) just as we practice toward the alien who resides among us,

so too reason requires the citizens of the land to practice amongst themselves

to sustain-the-life of a person who is an alien and resident among them

and to give him free gifts.

This is (the purpose of) Avraham’s statement “I am an alien and a resident . . . give me” –

his intent being “even though I am an alien and not one of you, nonetheless I am a resident”.

This suggests that Avraham was right to be disappointed by every aspect of the Hittite response – their demand for assimilation and Ephron’s desire for money.

However, Or HaChaim’s justification of Avraham’s disappointment comes with a challenging corollary; that Jews, whether in their own country or as part of a composite polity, have an obligation to freely give the necessities of a dignified life – specifically including burial grounds – to noncitizens who maintain separate identities.

This was too much for some subsequent commentators.  Here is the contemporary Rabbi M. Peretz in Otzar Haparshah:

והאדר”ת בספר סדר פרשיות הקשה

שלגר תושב מותר ליתן מתנת הנם בדבר שהוא להחיותו

אבל מקום קבורה ומתנה גדולה אין היוב


כשם שיש מצוה להחיותו

כך יש מצוה ליתן לו מקום קבורה

אלא שמקום חשוב, כמו מערת המכפלה – אין היוב ליתן במתנת חינם

וגם אברהם לא ביקש זאת

אלא כוונתו כיון שגר תושב אנכי עמכם – אם כן יש לי הזכות לקבל מקום קבורה בחנם

ואם כן, אני שמוכן לשלם במחיר מלא – ראוי ליתן לי רשות לקנות אפילו מקום חשוב כמערת המכפלה

לכן הקדים אברהם גר ותושב אנכי עמכם

The Aderet in his book Seder HaParshiyot challenged

that it is permitted to give a resident alien free gifts in matter that sustain-his-life,

but there is no obligation to give him a burial place or large gifts?!

But it seems

That just as there is a mitzvah to sustain his life,

So too there is a mitzvah to give him a burial place

Just that significant places, such as the Double Cave, there is no obligation to give for free

And Avraham did not seek this

Rather his intent was that “since I am a resident alien among you, I have the right to receive a burial place for free

Therefore, since I am prepared to pay full price, it is appropriate to give me permission to buy even a significant plot of land such as the Double Cave

That’s why Avraham began by saying “I am a resident alien among you”.

Rabbi Peretz contends that there must be boundaries to our obligations toward people who are not part of our nation.  It follows that there are boundaries on their obligations toward us. (But rights extend beyond obligations, so aliens have the right to purchase anything on the market so long as they pay full price, and we have the obligation to ensure that right.)

Not too many of our ancestors could have imagine a real-life situation in which we needed to make clear that the way Gentiles were treating us was lifnim mishurat hadin (beyond the letter of the law; expressing greater closeness to Hashem than required by Halakhah), lest our obligations toward Gentiles become too onerous. Not all Americans see us as neighbors, plainly, and this week we know far too well that some murderous anti-Semites live in our neighborhood. But sometimes you learn a lot from your neighbors when it comes time to bury your dead. We have  a lot to live up to.

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