Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

The Hidden Relationship of Kibbud Av Vaeim

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz

Shemot 21:17 and 21:19 discuss special obligations toward parents.  An adult child who hits or curses his parents is liable for the death penalty. Sandwiched between these two pesukim is a statement that one who kidnaps and sells any other human being is liable for the death  penalty.

This is a bizarre juxtaposition. Why is kidnapping placed in a section focused on honoring one’s parents?

Talmud Kidushin 31 presents several archetypes of kibbud av vaeim (=honoring parents). Dama ben Netinah famously refuses to wake his father despite the severe financial consequences for showing such a high level of deference to his father’s needs (Kiddushin 31a).  Rabbi Tarfon would kneel by his mother’s bedside, allowing himself to be stepped on to ease her climbing in and out of bed – and the Talmud concludes that his dedication was insufficient, and the mark of aqequate kibbud av vaeim is standing by quietly as one’s mother throws one’s money into the sea.   The message seems to be that the way we directly treat our parents is the most important aspect of our fulfillment of kibbud av vaeim.

The great  Spanish sage Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) uses the juxtaposition between kidnapping and honoring parents to modify this message.  He explains that the prohibition against kidnapping and selling another is inserted as a subtle reference to Yosef and his brothers, whose sibling rivalry tore their family apart and caused unspeakable pain to their father.  

Abarbanel’s method of interpretation here is fascinating and creative. He reads a halakhic verse as an allusion to a story, and and then learns a Halachic principle from the story.

Sibling relationships are often a volatile mixture of love, respect, jealousy and resentment. One might think that these relationships are voluntary commitments. One can embrace them as long as they remain positive and beneficial, but one has the right to discard them if the relationship goes south.

Abarbanel understands the reference to Yosef as the Torah’s way of teaching us that these complicated relationships are not optional. They are part and parcel of the mitzvah of kibbud av vaeim. As much as it means for parents to have children who show them love and respect, it is often just as important for them to see their children treat each other the same way. Often parents get no greater pleasure than seeing their children have a close bond, be it in childhood or adulthood.

After Yaakov’s passing, Yosef’s brothers become nervous. The Torah states (Genesis 50:15)

וַיִּרְאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף כִּי מֵת אֲבִיהֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוּ יִשְׂטְמֵנוּ יוֹסֵף וְהָשֵׁב יָשִׁיב לָנוּ אֵת כָּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר גָּמַלְנוּ אֹתוֹ

And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said,  “Perhaps Joseph will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did to him.”

The brothers assume that the only reason Yosef never enacted revenge against them was out of a commitment to kibbud av.  Yosef kept up the appearance of a positive relationship with his brothers for his father’s sake. After Yaakov dies, the brothers concoct the story that Yaakov gave them a message to tell Yosef not to harm his brothers. They understood how central the brothers’ relationship was to kibbud av, and assumed that keeping it in that context was the best way to restrain Yosef.  Abarbanel’s reading suggests that they may have been correct.

Our relationship with our siblings can be the greatest manifestation of kibbud av vaeim. But taken to its logical end, Abravanel challenges us to ask ourselves how all the relationships in our life impact our parents and our obligation to honor them.

 

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz (SBM 2000) is a member of the faculty of Yeshiva University High School for Girls.

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On the Mechanics of Skipping

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Pnina Grossman

Parshat Bo is where the Jewish people are given their first commandments as a new nation. They are commanded about the קרבן פסח – the Passover Offering – that they must bring in Egypt for the first time. During this time, G-d will be carrying out the last of the 10 Plagues in Egypt, but the blood that was to be spread on the doorposts of Jewish houses would also serve as their protection:

וְעָבַ֣ר יְהוָה֮ לִנְגֹּ֣ף אֶת־מִצְרַיִם֒ וְרָאָ֤ה אֶת־הַדָּם֙ עַל־הַמַּשְׁק֔וֹף וְעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֑ת וּפָסַ֤ח יְהוָה֙ עַל־הַפֶּ֔תַח וְלֹ֤א יִתֵּן֙ הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית לָבֹ֥א אֶל־בָּתֵּיכֶ֖ם לִנְגֹּֽף׃

(שמות יב:כג)

For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will PaSaCH the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.

(Exodus 12:23)

While the word פסח is often translated as “pass over”, its translation in this context is not clear to many of the commentators. Rashi explains the word as either “to have mercy on” or “to skip.” R. Amnon Bazak (as heard in a class in Machon Herzog) ties the two terms together with the observation that skipping involves not only the object that is passed over, but also an object that is landed on. Here also, the Jewish houses are not being passed over, they are being landed on. The Midrash in שמות רבה seems to support this idea. On the words “וראה את הדם,” it says “כביכול עמד בפתח ודוחה המשחית, שלא יגוף את ישראל” “If one could say such things, [G-d] will stand in the doorway and push out the Destroyer, so that it cannot strike Israel”.

This interpretation completely shifts the role G-d plays in this plague, as well as how He relates to the Jewish people. Instead of G-d’s main role being to go through Egypt as a destructive force, avoiding Jewish houses to not cause damage, He is, instead the protector of the Jewish people from the destructive force that is present throughout Egypt on this night. “To have mercy on” here is not a passive act of sparing Jewish households, it is an active stand on G-d’s part to choose and protect the Jewish people.

With the talk of skipping, it is unsurprising that מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל links this point with the פסוק in שיר השירים:

ק֣וֹל דּוֹדִ֔י הִנֵּה־זֶ֖ה בָּ֑א מְדַלֵּג֙ עַל־הֶ֣הָרִ֔ים מְקַפֵּ֖ץ עַל־הַגְּבָעֽוֹת׃

(שה”ש ב:ח)

Hark! My beloved! There he comes, leaping over mountains, Bounding over hills.

(Song of Songs 2:8)

The Midrash comments here “שהקב”ה מדלג על בתי בני ישראל במצרים, שנאמר קול דודי הנה זה בא מדלג על ההרים…” “That G-d skipped on the houses of Israel in Egypt, as it says ‘Hark! My beloved! There he comes, leaping over mountains…’” In addition to bringing up the two ideas of G-d taking mercy on the Jews in Egypt and skipping on their houses, the Midrash ties the idea of חפזון, hurriedness, to this part of שיר השירים. This idea is mentioned in שמות as well, when it talks about how the Jews have to eat the קרבן פסח, but here, the verse is used to talk about the hurriedness of the שכינה. Once again, we see G-d’s investment in this new developing relationship as He tells us: בא.

Pnina Grossman (SBM 2012) is a Sharon native and a current student at the City College of New York studying Mechanical Engineering.

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The Moral and Historical Imperatives of Exodus

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jason Strauss

Parshat Va’era seems to be merely a transition between Shemot and Bo, with no independent significance or character.  Last week’s Torah reading introduced us to Moshe’s character, to Aaron, and to the suffering of the Jewish People in Egypt, while Pharaoh’s decision to release the Jewish People doesn’t happen until next week.  It’s not clear why Va’era stops after the first seven plagues.  Moreover, Va’era opens with a narrative that seems redundant. G-d and Moshe re-litigate G-d’s command to lead the Jewish People out of Egypt and Moshe’s qualifications for the task.

Why was this relitigation necessary?  At the end of Parshat Shemot, Moshe views himself as a failure who has made things worse rather than better for the Jewish People. He accuses G-d of having increased their suffering.  Why is he willing to try again?  G-d’s response must contain something more than a pep-talk to inspire Moshe to return to Pharaoh.  It must effect a change in his self and his self-perception.  

In Parshat Shemot, Moshe is identified with moral sensitivity and principle.  Rav Yaakovson, the Rosh Yeshiva of Shaalvim, explains that “ויצא אל אחיו וירא בסבלותם,” (Exodus 2:11) means that Moshe left his comfortable life style and paid attention to the suffering of his brothers. As Rashi says, “נתן עיניו בלבו”, meaning that he looked inside himself and felt the pain of others. Three times in Shemot, Moshe sees injustice and refuses to stand by idly by; he rescues a fellow Jew being beaten by an Egyptian, a Jew from another Jew, and a group of non-Jewish women from other non-Jews. Unsurprisingly, the Midrash identifies Moshe with righteous justice (Shemot Rabbah 5:10).

However, as Rav Yonatan Grossman notes, Moshe does not yet identify with his people as a historical community. When faced with rejection and threats by his people in Egypt, Moshe runs to Midian instead of continuing to defend the people. Likewise, during Moshe’s initial conversation with Hashem at the burning bush, G-d only mentions that He has “seen” or “heard” the suffering of the Jewish People; there is no mention of the covenant or a historical/national reason for redemption.

In Parshat Va’era, however, Moshe is  rejected by the people and yet still defends them to G-d.  This expression of empathy and identification leads G-d to reveal the special covenant between Him and the people, forged with their ancestors: “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant” (Exodus 6:5). In Va’era, Moshe is for the first time charged with both a moral and a historical mission to redeem Israel from bondage.

As Rabbi Hayyim Angel observes, this explains the abrupt shift in 6:14 from the conversation between G-d and Moshe to Moshe and Aharon’s lineage. Until this point, Moshe’s lineage and heritage were not essential components of his mission or of his willingness to follow G-d’s instruction to liberate the Jewish People; he represented abstract justice.  In Parshat Va’era, Moshe realizes that he must represent the Jewish people as well.  This inspires another crisis of confidence as an outsider: how can he convince Israel, much less Pharaoh, of the possibility of Exodus?  Therefore, the Torah reminds us, and Moshe, of his deep historical connections to the people and its leadership; he and his brother are very much in a position to represent Israel in arguing for their freedom.

 

Sources:

Angel, Hayyim. J. (2014). A Synagogue Companion: Insights on the Torah, Haftarot, and Shabbat Morning Prayers. New York, NY: Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

Grossman, Yonatan. “The Two Consecrations of Moshe” Virtual Beit Midrash. Yeshivat Har Etzion, 1997. Web. 23 January 2017.

Rabbi Jason Strauss (SBM 2012, 2013, 2014) is the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA and a teacher at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.

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The Inheritance of Lot and Eisav

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Aminadav Grossman

Parshat Vayishlach features the dramatic reunion of Yaakov and Eisav. After extensive preparations and build up in the text, the brothers reunite in embrace in 33:4. What follows is an exchange between them where Eisav attempts to convince Yaakov to travel together or at least allow Eisav to leave some of his men with him. Yaakov protests, first due to the travel difficulties of small children and cattle, and, ultimately for reasons unspecified (33:12-16).

בראשית פרק לג

יב וַיֹּ֖אמֶר נִסְעָ֣ה וְנֵלֵ֑כָה וְאֵלְכָ֖ה לְנֶגְדֶּֽךָ

יג וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֗יו אֲדֹנִ֤י יֹדֵ֙עַ֙ כִּֽי־הַיְלָדִ֣ים רַכִּ֔ים וְהַצֹּ֥אן וְהַבָּקָ֖ר עָל֣וֹת עָלָ֑י וּדְפָקוּם֙ י֣וֹם אֶחָ֔ד וָמֵ֖תוּ כָּל־הַצֹּֽאן

יד יַעֲבָר־נָ֥א אֲדֹנִ֖י לִפְנֵ֣י עַבְדּ֑וֹ וַאֲנִ֞י אֶֽתְנָהֲלָ֣ה לְאִטִּ֗י לְרֶ֨גֶל הַמְּלָאכָ֤ה אֲשֶׁר־לְפָנַי֙ וּלְרֶ֣גֶל הַיְלָדִ֔ים עַ֛ד אֲשֶׁר־אָבֹ֥א אֶל־אֲדֹנִ֖י שֵׂעִֽירָה

טו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר עֵשָׂ֔ו אַצִּֽיגָה־נָּ֣א עִמְּךָ֔ מִן־הָעָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתִּ֑י וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לָ֣מָּה זֶּ֔ה אֶמְצָא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי

טז וַיָּשָׁב֩ בַּיּ֨וֹם הַה֥וּא עֵשָׂ֛ו לְדַרְכּ֖וֹ שֵׂעִֽירָה

Later, when the Torah begins enumerating Eisav’s descendants, it gives another reason for Eisav and Yaakov’s inability to live together.

בראשית פרק לו

ו וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁיו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֘ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו

ז כִּֽי־הָיָ֧ה רְכוּשָׁ֛ם רָ֖ב מִשֶּׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו וְלֹ֨א יָֽכְלָ֜ה אֶ֤רֶץ מְגֽוּרֵיהֶם֙ לָשֵׂ֣את אֹתָ֔ם מִפְּנֵ֖י מִקְנֵיהֶֽם

This closely parallels the earlier description of Lot and Avraham’s inability to live together.

בראשית פרק יג

ה וְגַם־לְל֔וֹט הַהֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶת־אַבְרָ֑ם הָיָ֥ה צֹאן־וּבָקָ֖ר וְאֹהָלִֽים

ו וְלֹא־נָשָׂ֥א אֹתָ֛ם הָאָ֖רֶץ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו כִּֽי־הָיָ֤ה רְכוּשָׁם֙ רָ֔ב וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ לָשֶׁ֥בֶת יַחְדָּֽו

In fact, there are other parallels between the relationships between Yaakov and Eisav, and Lot and Avraham. Both speak about traveling together and are called brothers– although Lot and Avraham are not actually brothers, Avraham says אנשים אחים אנחנו. Both pairs of relatives avert conflict: Avraham and Lot separating as a result of the bickering among their shepherds (reference), while Yaakov prepares for what he fears will be an attack from Eisav.

This is part of a much larger parallel between the lives of Yaakov and Avraham as founding patriarchs (compare for example the places that each visits upon entering the land of Israel). But what is the significance of the comparison between these pairs of relatives?

Eisav and Lot are juxtaposed in one other place in the Torah- in parshat Devarim where the Torah lists the inhabitants of the lands that bnei Yisrael will shortly traverse.

דברים פרק ב

ד וְאֶת־הָעָם֘ צַ֣ו לֵאמֹר֒ אַתֶּ֣ם עֹֽבְרִ֗ים בִּגְבוּל֙ אֲחֵיכֶ֣ם בְּנֵי־עֵשָׂ֔ו הַיֹּשְׁבִ֖ים בְּשֵׂעִ֑יר וְיִֽירְא֣וּ מִכֶּ֔ם וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם מְאֹֽד

ה אַל־תִּתְגָּר֣וּ בָ֔ם כִּ֠י לֹֽא־אֶתֵּ֤ן לָכֶם֙ מֵֽאַרְצָ֔ם עַ֖ד מִדְרַ֣ךְ כַּף־רָ֑גֶל כִּֽי־יְרֻשָּׁ֣ה לְעֵשָׂ֔ו נָתַ֖תִּי אֶת־הַ֥ר שֵׂעִֽיר

ט וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְקֹוָ֜ק אֵלַ֗י אַל־תָּ֙צַר֙ אֶת־מוֹאָ֔ב וְאַל־תִּתְגָּ֥ר בָּ֖ם מִלְחָמָ֑ה כִּ֠י לֹֽא־אֶתֵּ֨ן לְךָ֤ מֵֽאַרְצוֹ֙ יְרֻשָּׁ֔ה כִּ֣י לִבְנֵי־ל֔וֹט נָתַ֥תִּי אֶת־עָ֖ר יְרֻשָּֽׁה

יב וּבְשֵׂעִ֞יר יָשְׁב֣וּ הַחֹרִים֘ לְפָנִים֒ וּבְנֵ֧י עֵשָׂ֣ו יִֽירָשׁ֗וּם וַיַּשְׁמִידוּם֙ מִפְּנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיֵּשְׁב֖וּ תַּחְתָּ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֧ר עָשָׂ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לְאֶ֙רֶץ֙ יְרֻשָּׁת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥ן יְקֹוָ֖ק לָהֶֽם

Bnei Yisrael are forbidden from attacking the descendants of Lot, Amon and Moav, as well as the descendants of Eisav, because each has specifically been given their land as inheritance. The Torah even explicitly compares the conquest of Eisav’s descendants and that of Israel’s. This sheds new light on the parallel splitting of Lot and Eisav from the Abrahamic line in Breishit. While they do not continue as the spiritual and physical heirs of Avraham, they do have a specific inheritance– not rejection.

In certain ways Sefer Breishit is a story of chosenness and rejection in every generation, where one individual, or family, is chosen by God and the other rejected. The stories of Lot and Eisav demonstrate a different model whereby they aren’t chosen but also aren’t totally rejected. For Lot, perhaps due to his relationship with Avraham (Rashbam Devarim 2:19) or his loyalty to Avraham in not betraying Sarah’s identity as Avraham’s wife in Egypt (Rashi 2:5), and Eisav as a descendant of Avraham (Seforno 2:10) or perhaps due to the bracha given him by Yitzchak.

Ramban highlights this point in noting that miracles were performed to enable the descendants of Lot (Seforno says it about Eisav as well) to conquer their land, similar to the way Israel conquered the land of Canaan. The Ramban says that the land of Lot would have been fitting for the descendants of Avraham, had it not been given to Lot.

רמב”ן דברים פרשת דברים פרק ב

 כי בעבור שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה אל תצר את מואב כי אני נתתי לבני לוט את ער ירושה, יספר הכתוב כי הארץ ראויה לזרע אברהם לולי שנתנה לבני לוט. ואמר כי הארץ ההיא ישבו בה מעולם עם גדול ורם כענקים, ולכך יקראו אותם המואבים אמים לגודל האימה אשר יטילו על רואיהם, והנה השם עשה נס לבני לוט לכבוד אברהם ויכלו להם וירשום מפניהם, ואין ראוי לגזול מהם הארץ אשר נתן ה’ להם במעשה נס

Thus, the parallels between Lot and Eisav in Sefer Breishit reflect their connection as relatives of Avraham that retain a measure of divine chosenness in their inheritance. This status has ramifications for how Bnei Yisrael are told to interact with each of their descendants and their land later in Tanach. Perhaps it most reinforces Rashi’s summation of the meaning of Sefer Breishit at the beginning of the book (put in mouth of Bnei Yisrael) that the entire land belongs to Hashem, who distributes it as is fitting.

כל הארץ של הקדוש ברוך הוא היא, הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו, ברצונו נתנה להם וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו

Aminadav Grossman (SBM 2012) learns in the kollel at Yeshivat Har Etzion.  

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Communication for Good or Bad

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Miriam Jaffe

There are different ways of using speech to communicate. It can be used in a straightforward way, to convey the ideas expressed in the words. If I say “I am short,” I am probably conveying the information that I am short. But speech can also convey concepts through tone, word choice, or simply the decision to speak at all. For instance, if someone I know claims that they have no short friends, and I respond “I am short,” I may be communicating that I think they are a liar, or that I want to be their friend.

When Laban chases after Jacob, God warns him not to speak to Jacob “from good to bad” (Gen 31:24). The fact that even good speech is warned against indicates that Laban uses speech as more than straightforward communication. The narrative bears this out.

Lavan approaches Jacob with an intense complaint: You stole my heart, myself, and my daughters like war captives, without giving me so much as a chance to kiss them goodbye. Laban’s words evoke sympathy, until you remember that those same daughters don’t consider themselves welcome in their father’s house (v. 14-16). Eventually Laban’s complaint reaches its final point: “Why did you steal my gods?”, which isn’t literarily congruent with what came before. If his gods are so important, why is his language here so flat? On the flip side: if his gods aren’t important, why end anticlimactically?

Laban seems less interested in content than in being able to portray himself as the injured party. That’s why he uses the dramatic language, and asks “Why did you steal x from me?!” It doesn’t matter what x is. What matters is that x is his, and that x was stolen from him. To paraphrase verse 43 “mine, mine, mine and everything the light touches is mine,” and verses 26-31 “you stole this, you stole that, and you stole something else.”

In this case Laban is an influence on Jacob. Jacob’s response to Laban is all about victimhood – how he was a good worker for so many years, but was always being cheated or accused of stealing.

Rashi understands G-d’s warning to Laban not to speak “from good to bad” as meaning “what is good for Laban is bad for Jacob.”

And Laban’s influence on Jacob, does indeed wind up bad for Jacob. In his grand statement of personal innocence, he anticipates – causes? his wife’s early death (v. 32)  The word he uses asking Laban to prove him wrong, “hak’ker,” is used against Jacob himself as evidence of his son’s death.  In his treaty with Laban, Jacob agrees not to cross the gal or the matzaivah (the pile of stones, or the special standing stone), while Laban just can’t cross the gal (v. 52).

When Laban makes a treaty that the two will never meet again, it’s about them not meeting “for bad,” as opposed to god’s formulation “good or bad.” It seems like he still thinks maybe at some point he can get the upper hand by doing something to Jacob, which he’ll probably justify as “good” if you ask him. And he does, at least according to the Midrash Tanchuma on this week’s parsha, which identifies Bilam as Laban crossing the place of the pile of stones in numbers 22:25. But in this case God doesn’t let him go against his word, which Bilam admits in 24:13 אִם-יִתֶּן-לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ, כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב–לֹא אוּכַל לַעֲבֹר אֶת-פִּי יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת טוֹבָה אוֹ רָעָה מִלִּבִּי:  אֲשֶׁר-יְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֹתוֹ אֲדַבֵּר. 

“Were Balak to give me his houseful of gold and silver – I would not be able to transgress the mouth of G-d, to do good or evil out of my heart.  

Miriam Jaffe (SBM 2011) is a computer programmer in New York City.

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Rebeccah’s Pain

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Ezra Newman

Three verses into this week’s parsha the reader learns that Rebeccah became pregnant and that her pregnancy was not easy. [1] The reader is then treated to a partial verse of Rebeccah’s internal monologue, a statement that defies easy translation.

:כב) …ותאמר אם כן למה זה אנכי ותלך לדרש את יקוק)

JPS translates this as “…and she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’ She went to inquire of the Lord:” JPS then adds a helpful footnote, explaining “meaning of Hebrew uncertain.”

What was Rebeccah saying, and what did it inspire her to do? Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban gave three very different explanations.

Rashi wrote that Rebeccah, due to the pain of her pregnancy, prayed to God. This elicits a question; if Rebeccah’s monologue was really prayer to God, what was she doing in the final part of the verse, when “she went to inquire of the Lord”? Was that not also prayer? Rashi explained that it was not Rebeccah praying, rather her going to the beit midrash of Shem for him to consult with God on her behalf.

Ibn Ezra wrote that Rebeccah, due to the pain of her pregnancy, asked other women if this pain was normal. When told that it was not, she then went to inquire of God (through the medium of a prophet) why her pregnancy was unusual.

Ramban wrote that Rebeccah, due to the pain of her pregnancy, turned not towards God or other women, but inwards, towards herself, and lamented that she was still alive. In Ramban’s understanding, Rebeccah’s internal monologue consisted of her wishing that she died or was never born. Then she went to pray. Ramban is silent on whether this prayer was for her pain to end through birth or through her wish being fulfilled.

These three approaches of the commentators accurately reflect different human approaches towards coping with pain and suffering. In their hands, Rebeccah has become the paragon for the different ways humans cope. Some appeal to higher authorities, whether they are God, a rabbi, a prophet or others. Some ask their peers, many who have been through similar experiences, for consolation and assurance. And some turn inwards, occasionally with destructive consequences.

The JPS approach also reflects some truth with regard to human suffering. Often people want a combination of things when they are suffering, and that combination is difficult to distill into clear parts. Oftentimes as well people are simply incoherent or impossible to understand when they are suffering.

Any way it’s construed, this monologue of Rebeccah is unusual when compared with what a reader of Genesis would expect. Rebeccah’s female counterparts in Genesis are most often found grieving over their inability to become pregnant, not the pain they experience while pregnant. Rachel especially expresses tremendous frustration at her inability to become pregnant. [2] Yet Rebeccah expresses nothing verbally about her inability to become pregnant. The reader learns that Isaac prayed on Rebeccah’s behalf because she was barren, and then learns, immediately and matter-of-factly, that she became pregnant. The drama of becoming pregnant does not exist for Rebeccah as it does for Rachel and Sarah.

This should be especially unusual to some rabbinic thinkers, as the pain of lack of pregnancy has taken on unique meaning for them. Earlier this year, Rabbi Binyamin Lau and Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein engaged in a back and forth in Yeshivat Har Etzion’s weekly newsletter, Daf Kesher, over a responsa co-authored by Rabbi Lau and his wife, Rabbanit Noah, regarding supervision of women during mikvah immersions. [3]

Rabbi Lau, when challenged on the validity of the arguments in his teshuva, responded in part by appealing to a broader moral argument of needing to do better by women in general. He ended his response by quoting a Midrash which challenges Jacob’s harsh response to Rachel’s complaints of infertility, stating rhetorically, “כך עונים את המועקות?” Clearly, Rabbi Lau believed that the pain Rachel was feeling about her infertility was comparable in some way to the pain women felt about having to immerse with supervision.

Rabbi Lichtenstein took Rabbi Lau to task on this point. He argued that one can simply not compare the pain felt by women who are unable to become pregnant with the pain felt by women when required to immerse under supervision. The pain of the former is much greater than the pain of the latter.

How would Rabbi Lau and Rabbi Lichtenstein explain Rebeccah’s silence here then? Rabbi Lau puts stock in the pain of lack of pregnancy being representative of pains that all women feel that need to be responded to universally, and Rabbi Lichtenstein puts stock in the pain of lack of pregnancy being of a certain magnitude greater than other female pains. Yet we know Rebeccah had the ability to express pain, it’s written in the next verse. And we know Genesis knows how to convey pain over lack of pregnancy, Rachel managed to do it quite vociferously. So how come Rebeccah is silent?

Maybe Genesis is managing to convey a point that Rabbi Lau and Rabbi Lichtenstein seem to have missed in their back and forth. People are different from one another. People deal with pain differently and people experience pain differently. Maybe instead of large proclamations dealing with entire groups of people as monoliths, we need to traffic in recognizing the differences of the individual.

Making a large public statement on a topic is great for the people who agree with your statement, but is it worth it if you’ve ostracized others who disagree with you? Sometimes it will be and sometimes it won’t be. Assuming a fact about a large group of people works out with regard to the people it is true for, but is it worth it when it misrepresents many others? Sometimes it’s necessary and sometimes it’s not.

Maybe it’s time for us all to put more stock in understanding other individuals, instead of making decisions for or assumptions about larger groups. Healing sometimes comes through mass declarations and statements, but more often comes from understanding the pain and coping mechanisms of unique individuals.

 

Notes:

[1] One could interpret “ויתרצצו הבנים בקרבה” differently, but read simply it appears to indicate that the pregnancy was difficult, or at least unusual, physically.

[2] See Genesis 30:1.

[3] Available for download here.

 

Ezra Newman (SBM 2013), from Silver Spring, MD, is an alumnus of MJBHA, Gush and Cornell and is currently a first year law student at Harvard.

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Baal ha-Batim, the Avot, and the Imahot

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Michael Pershan

Where does one go for guidance on how to live the practical, Jewish life of a baal habayit?

In a 1979 talk, Rav Soloveitchik identifies two traditions that run through Jewish history. First is the familiar rabbinic tradition, passed from Moshe to each subsequent generation of scholars. Second is the practical tradition of the baal habayit, which originates from Yosef.

In contrast to the scholastic, the practical tradition is not one of concepts, thoughts, concepts, laws. It’s one of images. The continuity is something I see, I feel, I can reach out for it. It’s the tradition of the lifestyle of action. This tradition can be traced back to antiquity.

Many have written about rabbis, Rav Soloveitchik notes, but far fewer have written about baal habatim.

Why has so little been written about Jewish laity? We can partly point towards rabbinic interpretation, which consistently interprets Jewish excellence as scholarly excellence. The gemara (Yoma 28b) cites our parsha to teach that Avraham sat in yeshivah and kept the entire Torah. His servent Eliezer is a scholarly disciple, one who mastered Avraham’s teachings and offered them in turn to others. Both are, undoubtedly, part of the spiritual elite.

Perhaps there is no issue at all. It’s true, there is little said about the spiritual non-elite, but why should there be? Yes, we could imagine Avraham as a real estate agent who struggles (as many of us do) to find time for Torah, family or our communities. But that would eliminate the utility of Avraham as a role model. Avraham is an unattainable spiritual model — striving towards his standard is impossible for the average Jew, and that is what makes him an effective goal-setter for the laity.

There is a great deal of truth here, I think. Yet there is also something missing. I can’t think how Avraham or Eliezer — if we see them as geniuses of Torah — would deal with some of the issues I grapple with daily. Here is one that feels somewhat silly to admit: even after years of eating among colleagues in public, I’m unsure how to make berachos and bentch in the proper way. (Without seeming crazy, while having proper kavanah, without being rude, and without consistently explaining my practices.)

How would Avraham grapple with this? He wouldn’t even be bothered by the problem. Alas, I am.

As I look at this week’s Parsha more carefully, though, I notice that perhaps I’ve shown bias in my search for Jewish role models. There are, in fact, Jewish heroes who are not painted by Chazal as scholars: the women of the Torah. They feel the feelings that I regularly do. We learn from Yalkut Shimoni that Rivka became terrified upon seeing Yitzchak in the field; last week Sarah laughed in the face of an oracle. These are emotions that I recognize.

Could the tradition of baal habayit be found in the women of the Torah? Rav Soloveitchik says this would be a tradition of images, scents and feelings, rather than of intellectual matters. Perhaps, when trying to find ways to bentsch while sitting among colleagues who don’t understand prayer, rather than thinking of halachic heroes I should think towards the images the Torah provides of the imahot — Rivka, sitting on a donkey, covering her face with a veil and whispering to Eliezer.

Michael Pershan (SBM 2009) is a math teacher in New York City.

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