Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

Shame Without Sin

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Michael Pershan

The story of Yehuda and Tamar is truly a bombshell: a tale of death, sexuality, deception and contrition. It’s a difficult perek, made more difficult by its insertion in the middle of Yosef’s saga. What is this story about, and what is it doing here?

For both Yehuda and Tamar, this is a story about embarrassment and shame. Yehuda ends up in a compromising situation. After extensive negotiations with a prostitute (which, in retrospect, should have been his first warning sign), he finds himself unable to find her and pay for her services. At the cost of his collateral, he decides not to prolong the search, “lest we become a laughingstock.”

Yehuda doesn’t know the half of it, though. The “prostitute” was Tamar, his daughter-in-law, and she has become pregnant, and she has proof that the child is his, in the form of the seal she cleverly took as collateral. Yet, when her pregnancy becomes known and Yehuda sentences her to burn, she remains publicly silent, keeping the scandalous information to herself — and to Yehuda, whom she tells discretely.

The gemara makes much of this: “Better for a man to let himself be cast in flames than not shame another.” We learn this from Tamar, who kept quiet even as disaster neared.

One puzzle the mefarshim grapple with is why Tamar remained silent during the first three months of her pregnancy, before the pregnancy became noticeable. Why not bring the seal to Yehuda right away?

The Torah is not explicit as to Tamar’s motivations in meeting Yehuda out on the road. According to the Sforno, though, Tamar didn’t seek the father; she sought the son, Shelah, who she had been told to wait for. All she wanted was to dress up nicely, to remove her mourning clothes, and make a clear impression. That would show Yehuda that she was ready to emerge from her grief and marry his third son.

Instead, her father-in-law asks to sleep with her. Rashi on Yehuda’s proposition to Tamar: “hava na: Prepare yourself and your mind for this.”

Tamar needs to prepare psychologically because this was not what she thought would happen when she encountered her father-in-law. Still, she accedes to Yehuda’s call of hava na. (I wonder, did she know that Yehuda couldn’t recognize her?) Three months later, her pregnancy becomes obvious. Word passes to Yehuda, who sentences her to be burned. And still, Tamar remains silent.

“Better for a man to let himself be cast in flames than not shame another.” But what about shaming yourself? The key to understanding Tamar’s silence could be the shame she feels for herself — especially if, as Sforno says, her intent had not been to sleep with Yehuda. Perhaps, even as the father of her children sentences her to death, Tamar is still hoping there’s some way, any way, to avoid revisiting this episode in public, for her own sake.

Following Yehuda’s actions, he and Tamar are both left feeling ashamed of themselves. And yet Yehuda seems to be without sin. Yehuda was widowed when he propositioned Tamar, he didn’t really owe Tamar his third son in marriage, and he didn’t recognize Tamar when he propositioned her.

But whether or not, in a technical sense, Yehuda sinned seems besides the point. Yehuda came to be ashamed of his actions, and caused Tamar to become ashamed of herself. People don’t feel like that when they act righteously; he must have done something wrong.  

What was Yehuda thinking, when Tamar handed him his seal and cord? Can we imagine what was passing through his mind in that moment? Did he feel defensive? Protective? Angry? Scared?

Maybe, in that moment, Yehuda thought of his brother, the one whose sale he’d arranged in the story surrounding this one. That had been a difficult situation too, even more than his current predicament. And he’d found an elegent way out. The others wanted to kill him, after all, so Yehuda had done the right thing. Yosef was still alive.

He had done the right thing, hadn’t he? But then why, as Yaakov wept, did the others look at him with disgust? What right did his brothers have to be upset with him? (Rashi: “And Yaakov descended – they took him down from leadership.”) Rationally, the brothers had no right to judge Yehuda.

But when it comes to ethics, emotion is sometimes a better barometer than reason. Yehuda was embarrassed by what he’d done — what he’d done to Yaakov, Yosef, his brothers and to Tamar — and he finally knew what he had to do: “Yehuda recognized and said ‘She is right,’” and his teshuva began.


Michael Pershan (SBM 2009) teaches math at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn.


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Personal Transformation and Facing the Divine

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eliana Yashgur

Yaakov Avinu is introduced into Sefer Bereishit as a prototypical homebody. As an  איש תם יושב אוהלים (Bereishit 25:27), the straightforward and simple-hearted Yaakov is removed from the outside world and fully immersed in the world of the beit midrash. In the opinion of HaAmek Davar, Yaakov believed that anything anyone did on the outside represented what they were really like on the inside. Such a lifestyle was nested in reservation and innocence, free of the burdens of the world.

Yet, in Parshat VaYishlach, when Yaakov meets the angel of G-d, he embarks upon a journey away from this insular life toward a life of responsibility and ownership. This angel tells him that his name will be changed to Yisrael. Rashi comments that the change is from Yaakov, “supplanting”, to Yisrael, which comes from שררה, nobility. Yaakov understands himself as having spoken to a messenger of G-d face-to-face and hence names this place Peniel (פניאל), “facing G-d”.  He thus moves from passively receiving or subtly acquiring blessing to being the owner of his blessings, receiving them openly and in the context of taking action as an emerging leader. This way he moves from a life in the private sphere to the public sphere.

The Torah also uses the root פנה when describing Moshe Rabbeinu’s communication with Hashem as “פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים”, “face to face” (Devarim 34:10).  Indeed, Seforno comments that it was speaking with G-d in that way that made Moshe נורא, awesome, with rays of light emanating from his face.

Like Yaakov, Moshe did not begin life as a public leader.  Moshe began as a self-perceived ערל שפתיים, “man of uncircumcised lips”, uncomfortable with taking on the leadership of an entire nation. But Moshe too emerges as a leader when G-d speaks to him.  

Both Moshe and Yaakov are transformed by their interactions with the Divine panim el panim. Yaakov emerges from the life of an ish tam inexperienced in dealing with the conflicts of the greater world, and is led to face himself, another man, and the Divine all in one battle. The use of these words in two scenarios that share in common the purpose of the Divine messages to the subjects rather than the format of the speech, highlight the transformative power of these confrontations. It is clear according to the pshat that Yaakov’s experience involved interacting with a being whom Yaakov perceived as an angel of G-d, while Moshe’s communication with G-d was prophetic and immediate. What is similar, though, is the transformative purpose these interactions have.

The words פנים אל פנים contrast with the words פנים בפנים, which are used to refer to Bnei Yisrael when they hear Hashem at Har Sinai, in Devarim 5:4: פָּנִ֣ים ׀ בְּפָנִ֗ים דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה עִמָּכֶ֛ם בָּהָ֖ר מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵֽשׁ׃. Ibn Ezra understands פנים בפנים to mean simply face-to-face, without an intermediary. Similarly, Rashi comments that the words are used by G-d to convey to Bnei Yisrael that He is speaking to them directly as the seller of the Torah, so that they do not think they are being misled with something that does not exist- in the same way a transaction between a vendor and a purchaser happens. On the other hand, the words פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים seem to convey something additional, especially because of the context in which they are found. They refer not simply to an instance of confrontation, but to a moment in which direct encounter with G-d is the harbinger of a new stage of development for an individual. It is when Yaakov confronts himself in the fight with the angel and Moshe confronts himself at Har Sinai, ready to take on new roles of leadership as a more developed versions of themselves, that they also are able to face Hashem panim el panim.

Eliana Yashgur (SBM 2017) is a junior at Princeton University.

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Why Does Yakov Dream of Speckled Sheep?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elliot Dine

At the outset of our parashah, Yakov sees angels going up and down (עולים ויורדים) a ladder.   After twenty years living with Lavan in Haran, Yakov dreams instead “that all the he-goats mounting (עולים) the flock are streaked, speckled and mottled (Bereishit, 31:12).” He cannot even dream beyond his livelihood.  How does Yakov fall so far?  More importantly, how does he snap out of it, so that by the end of the Parasha he once again meets up with angels (32:3)?

To answer these questions, we must understand how Yakov comes to depend on the spotted sheet for his livelihood, and why he may specifically think about their mounting/mating habits. After marrying and having 12 of his children, Yakov makes a deal with Lavan to go back to shepherding Lavan’s flock to “make provisions for his own household (30:30).” This deal gives Yakov all the speckled, streaked or mottled sheep and leaves Lavan with all the pure white ones. Lavan readily agrees to this deal, as speckled sheep are the much rarer kind – it’s a recessive genetic trait- yet Yakov has a plan that he puts in place right after making the deal.

This plan involves Yakov breeding “vigorous” sheep in front of peeled rods and poplar branches, so that the sheep will have the images of white spots on black branches or black spots on white reeds at the time of mating. Yakov’s plan may be based on a folk belief that images present at the time of mating will be imprinted on the embryos, and the progeny will thus match the speckled and streaked nature of the poplar branches.  Some modern commentators, such as Yehuda Feliks, try to argue instead that Yakov’s plan was rooted in sound concepts of genetics and animal breeding. Specifically, “vigorous” animals are more likely to be heterozygotes and therefore give birth to speckled sheep even though the parents are completely white. As a biologist and reader of the text, I find this argument less than compelling, mostly because reliance on folk beliefs seems to appear as a motif throughout our parasha, most notably with the story of Rachel requesting Reuven’s mandrakes.

Regardless of its basis, Yakov’ plan raises a troubling ethical question: isn’t Yakov taking unfair advantage of Lavan in this agreement, making Lavan think he’s getting a great deal while having this stratagem in his back pocket?!

Yakov seems to have become the trickster that Lavan is.  Professor Nahum Sarna points out that the language used in the agreement, with its strained repetitions of the whiteness (Lavan) of the sheep, seems to blare out that Yakov has out-Lavaned Lavan in this deal. Moreover, Yakov appears to think little of God’s role in his livelihood, instead relying on folk beliefs or his knowledge of animal breeding to bring wealth to his family.  Unlike his wives, Yakov only mentions God twice up to this point in his time at Haran; first when he yells at Rachel “Can I take the place of the Lord?! (30:2)”, and secondly when he makes this deal with Lavan and repeats Lavan’s words to state “And G-d has blessed You [Lavan] wherever I [Yakov] turned (30:30).” Yakov has lost all sense of God’s promise at Bet-El and cannot even think that God has provided for and protected him in Haran. rather it has all gone to Lavan. Thus, Yakov turns to and turns into Lavan to provide for his family.

So how does Yakov snap out of it? Clearly, God’s appearance to Yakov in his dream about speckled sheep leads Yakov to realize that God was with him this whole time (see 31: 10-14).  But what leads Yakov to merit God’s appearance?  Other cases of God appearing to those in need (even those who are undeserving) necessitate the person crying out and God hearing those cries, such as with the stories of Hagar or the Israelites in Egypt. Yet Yakov never cries out or turns to God even when he is in danger. So what allows Yakov, who has disregarded God in Haran, to see Him again?

I think the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ emphasis on the importance of “the face of the other” is helpful here.  Immediately before God appears to Yakov, “Yakov saw the face of Lavan, and it was not disposed towards him as in the past (31:2).”  Professor Robert Alter notes that the physical concreteness of this wording and image is striking and should not be overlooked; rather, Yakov looking at Lavan’s face and recognizing its inconstancy may be the key to the story. The person who Yakov has spent the last twenty years following and imitating changes his face, in stark contrast to the God of Yakov’s fathers. Yakov makes the contrast explicit in his words to Rachel and Leah: “I see your father’s face and it is not disposed towards me as in times past, but the God of my fathers has been with me (31:5).” Yakov sees the face of another, Lavan, and recognizes its lack of godliness due to its changing nature. Therefore, Yakov turns back to the face of the Ultimate Other and recognizes it once again, even when it takes the form of speckled sheep.

Shabbat Shalom!

Elliot Dine (SBM 2010, 2015) is a third-year PhD student in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University.

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Avraham and the Ideal of Rootless Outsider

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi William Friedman

Avraham takes on many roles in the Torah: he is a warrior, a family man, a solicitous host, a disputant with God, a servant of God, and more. But one aspect of his personality – one that, upon reflection, must have existed from an early point – is revealed most fully, I would argue, in two episodes that take place at late points in his life detailed in our parashah: the late-in-life purchase of a burial plot in Hevron, and his command that Yitzhak’s wife come from his family. Taken together, these episodes reveal an Avraham who places a high value on being an outsider, one who is not tied down to any specific place.

The parashah picks up in Hevron, one of the first places Avraham pitched his tent in Cana`an (Bereishit 13:18) many decades earlier. Despite this lengthy association, [1] Avraham clearly never planted firm roots there in the form of purchasing land, as revealed by his sudden need to negotiate for a burial plot (ahuzat kever) for Sarah. Indeed, Avraham’s opening declaration of ger ve-toshav anokhi imakhem – “a foreigner and a resident [2] am I with you” – may reveal more than an exaggerated humility, as noted by Malbi”m:

מלבים בראשית כג:ד

גר ותושב אנכי עמכם” – אברהם רצה דוקא אחוזת קבר שהוא בית קברות מיוחד אל כל המשפחהוהנה:

הגר לא ישאל אחוזת קבר אחר שאין דעתו לישב שם בקבע הוא ובני ביתו,

והתושב לא יצטרך לשאול אחוזת קבר באשר יש לו שם שדה ונחלה שיכול להקצות ממנה מקום לאחוזת קבר.

אבל אנכי גר עד עתה ואין לי פה שדה ואחוזה מכברועתה אני רוצה להיות תושב לשבת פה בקביעות עם בני ביתי,

לכן אבקש תנו לי אחוזת קבר עמכם,” שיהיה מיוחד לכל בני ביתי.

Avraham specifically desired an ahuzat kever, which is a cemetary designated for an entire family. But a ger would not ask for an ahuzat kever, given that he does not intend to settle there permanently with his family, while a toshav would not need to ask for a burial plot, given that he would already have a field and ancestral land there, a portion of which he could designate as space for a cemetary. I [= Avraham], however, have been, to this point, a ger, and [therefore] have no field or pre-existing holding. Now, however, I wish to become a toshav, to dwell here permanently with my family, and therefore am requesting that you give me a burial plot amongst you that will be designated for my entire family.

Waiting until the death of one’s long-term wife to begin to establish multigenerational stability in a place one has inhabited for a long time is rather strange behavior. It reveals, perhaps, an ambivalence towards – perhaps even an aversion to – setting down overly firm roots. This is deeply embedded in his biography from an early point; even before being personally called by God, his family had left Ur Kasdim, for unstated reasons (11:31). Perhaps his experience with rootlessness, with being unmoored, contributed to his selection by God.

Avraham’s affinity for the unrooted may also lie at the heart of his demand that his servant (unnamed here, but traditionally understood to be Eliezer) to “go to my birthplace to take a wife for Yitzhak” (24:4). R. Hayyim Paltiel notes how odd this instruction is: תימ‘ מה ראה במשפחתו והלא היו כולם עובדי עז – “What did he see in his family of origin? Weren’t they all idolators?!” The question could be sharpened even further: Why was a woman from his family of origin superior to the many converts (and their descendents) whom Avraham and Sarah had attracted to themselves as far back as their time in Haran (12:5)?

R. Paltiel’s answer suggests a certain nostalgia or projection on Avraham’s part: ויל דהיה יודע שאם הייתה מקרבת אצלו הייתה למידה יראת שמים – “One could say that he knew that if she was drawn to him [= Avraham? Yitzhak?] she would learn fear of Heaven.” Again one could ask: why should an idol-worshipping Chaldean woman from Avraham’s family be any more likely to learn fear of Heaven than a local Canaanite woman, let alone a descendant of those Avraham and Sarah had already drawn near in Haran? [3] It seems, rather, that Avraham was seeking a daughter-in-law who would be someone willing to leave her family and travel to a strange place. Perhaps he recognized that Yitzhak had not inherited his qualities of spiritual daring – perhaps could not, being rooted in Cana`an in a way that Avraham never had been – and sought to provide for Yitzhak someone possessed of the clarity that can only come from being an outsider.

The experience of being an unrooted foreigner in a place is often scary, subjecting one to powerlessness and demonization. That, of course, was the experience of benei yisrael in Mitzrayim, and the underpinning of the Torah’s many demands to treat the ger well is linked to that historical experience. But when Shemot prohibits oppressing the ger ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר – “because you know the life of the ger” perhaps it is not merely drawing on the memory of oppression, but on the positive model embodied and embraced by Avraham, the original ger. Jews have, of course, known both the benefits and the detriments of rootlessness over the millennia; the work of ameliorating the latter should not blind us to the former.

Shabbat Shalom!


[1] The precise chronology and length of his residence there is difficult to calculate, by the time of Sarah’s death he has had more than fifty years of presence and relationship there. Sarah died at 127; Avraham was ten years older than her (Gen. 17:17), making him 137 at the time of her death. He journeyed to Cana`an at 75 (Gen. 12:4); even assuming a several year gap for the journey, the sojourn in Egypt, and traversing Cana`an, that still leaves a 50-60 year gap. Seder Olam 1 calculates his years of actual residence in Hevron as 25 years.

[2] Peshat is that ger ve-toshav is a singular term, not two separate declarations, as in Vayikra 25:47; the terms are used in poetic parallel in 1 Divrei HaYamim 29:15 and Tehillim 39:13. The commentaries, however, see a substantive distinction between the terms, as we will see presently.

[3] Cf. Abarbanel’s discussion here, who notes the same issue and offers a very different resolution grounded in Canaanite essentialism. But Rivka’s family were no angels, either.

Rabbi William Friedman (SBM ’03) is a doctoral candidate in ancient Judaism at Harvard University.

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The Silent Tale of a Broken Family

Alumni Dvar Torah by Shoshana Jakobovits

There is an oddity in the verses closing the episode of the Akedah. After the dramatic interruption by the mal’ach and the offering of the ram, God blesses Avraham, and we read:

וַיָּ֤שָׁב אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶל־נְעָרָ֔יו וַיָּקֻ֛מוּ וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ יַחְדָּ֖ו אֶל־בְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב אַבְרָהָ֖ם בִּבְאֵ֥ר שָֽׁבַע׃ (בראשית כ”ב, י”ט)

Avraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Be’er Sheva; and Avraham stayed in Be’er Sheva. (Gen. 22:19)

Contrary to expectation, only Avraham is mentioned returning from Har HaMoriah, after the binding of his son, but we hear nothing of Yitzchak. Where was he? Did he not return? This omission is made even more glaring by its textual similarity to Avraham’s promise to his servants as he left them to proceed with Yitzchak towards the mountain:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶל־נְעָרָ֗יו שְׁבוּ־לָכֶ֥ם פֹּה֙ עִֽם־הַחֲמ֔וֹר וַאֲנִ֣י וְהַנַּ֔עַר נֵלְכָ֖ה עַד־כֹּ֑ה וְנִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖ה וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃ (בראשית כ”ב, ה’)

Then Avraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.” (Gen. 22:5)

The word “וְנָשׁוּבָה” – and we (plural) will return stands in stark contrast to the word “וַיָּשָׁב” – and he (singular) returned. It really seems Avraham and Yitzchak do not return together from the binding at Har HaMoriah. Did Avraham’s attempt to kill his son shatter their relationship?

The words of verse 22:19, “וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו” is like an empty echo to the words “וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו” – “and the two (Avraham and Yitzchak) walked off together”, which appears twice in the first part of the account of the Akedah (Bereshit 22:6 and 22:8). After the Akedah though, there is no more “שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם” “the two of them”, Avraham and Yitzchak do not appear to be walking side-by-side anymore; this dual father-son entity seems to be gone. Avraham goes back to Be’er Sheva, though he previously lived in Eretz P’llishtim (cf Bereshit 21:34). As for Yitzchak, we are not told where he goes after the tragic events of Har haMoriah and we do not hear of him until he meets Rivkah, at the end of chapter 24. Father and son seem indeed to have gone two separate ways.

Some commentators (like Ibn Ezra and the Radak) reject this reading and state that when Avraham is said to return, it is implied that Yitzchak is with him, but I believe the flagrant omission of the word “שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם” in “וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ יַחְדָּ֖ו” makes it unlikely. Several other commentators read verse 22:19 as a real separation between Avraham and Yitzchak’s paths, each going their separate way, whether Yitzchak momentarily goes to the yeshiva of Shem and Ever (Bereshit Rabbah, 56:11) or ascends to Gan Eden according to Alshikh:

הנה ארזל (פרקי דרא פלא) כי יש אמרו כי יצחק הלך לגע להתרפאת מאשר היחלה הסכין לחתוך בו ויש אמרו למקום אחר

Our Rabbis said (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 21) that some said that Yitzchak went to Gan Eden to heal from the knife which had started to cut into him, and some people say he went to a different place.

A more dramatic medieval tradition, succinctly mentioned and rejected by Ibn Ezra (see his commentary on Bereshit 22:19) takes Avraham’s returning alone to an extreme, and has Avraham killing Yitzchak on the altar, Yitzchak rising to the heavens then being resurrected later, in time to marry Rivkah.

In any case, it is striking that following the Akedah, Yitzchak does not appear in the text of the Torah until Rivkah comes to meet him (except as a subject in Avraham’s conversation with his slave about finding a wife for his son):

וְיִצְחָק֙ בָּ֣א מִבּ֔וֹא בְּאֵ֥ר לַחַ֖י רֹאִ֑י וְה֥וּא יוֹשֵׁ֖ב בְּאֶ֥רֶץ הַנֶּֽגֶב׃ (בראשית כ”ד, ס”ב)

Yitzchak had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi, for he was settled in the region of the Negev. (Gen. 24:62)

All these years between the Akedah and meeting Rivkah, Yitzchak seems to have lived not in Beer Sheva, where his father goes to after the Akedah, nor in Chevron, where his mother Sarah is said to have died, but in an entirely different place: Beer-lahai-roi. Thus, the Akedah appears as a traumatic event that shatters Yitzchak’s connection to his parents seemingly forever. A closer read of the first verses of the next sidra will reveal that an even deeper rift is dug between Avraham and his family. Not only did Avraham and Yitzchak stop seeing each other after the Akedah, but Avraham stopped seeing Sarah as well: we are told of no interaction between them following the Akedah up until Sarah’s death, which happens in Chevron. The verses there state:

וַתָּ֣מָת שָׂרָ֗ה בְּקִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥וא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ׃ (בראשית כ”ג, א’)

Sarah died in Kiriath Arba – now Chevron – in the land of Canaan; and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Gen. 23:1)

Where did Avraham come from? Why wasn’t he beside his wife when she was about to die? Relying on the proximity between the episode of the Akedah and Sarah’s passing occurring immediately afterwards in the text, several midrashim have Sarah passing away upon hearing the news of the Akedah. These midrashim miss fail to account for Avraham’s traveling to Beer Sheva after the Akedah while Sarah dies in Chevron. I prefer to read the mentioning of these two different cities as a breakup: after having contemplated and gone through all the motions of killing their son for God’s commandment, Avraham and Sarah cannot look each other in the eye anymore.

This family drama unfolds without screams, without words, without tears. We are not told of soaring fights, of heated rancor or good-bye scenes. As readers of the story of the Akedah, we are overflown by sharp and disturbing theological, ethical and philosophical questions, and it is easy to overlook this silent tale of a family dismembered, of people moving away from their parents and their partners, of people so deeply traumatized by the commandment of God to kill a son, so scarred, that from now on they will meet again only in death: Avraham and Sarah at her funeral at Machpelah – Yitzchak, Ishmaël and Avraham at the patriarch’s funeral. As if life didn’t make sense, if it meant living in a world where a father is ready to sacrifice his child, and in which a mother stands idly by.

Curiously, Yitzchak does not make an appearance in Sarah’s funeral. Did he not come? Is he angry at his mother Sarah for she let this happen, she didn’t see the signs, she didn’t stop her husband? She who had been the instigator of the eviction of his brother had not watched out for Yitzchak, had not fought for him as his father set out to kill him.

If that is so, this reading would shed a new light on the words of the Torah spoken about Yitzchak when he meets Rachel:

וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק הָאֹ֙הֱלָה֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת־רִבְקָ֛ה וַתְּהִי־ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֖ה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ׃ (בראשית כ”ד, ס”ז)

Yitzchak then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rivkah as his wife. Yitzchak loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother. (Gen. 24:67)

When Yitzchak fell in love with Rivkah, he didn’t console himself from Sarah’s death, but rather from her silence and her passivity when he was taken by his father for the Akedah, and only then, he forgave.

Shoshana Jakobovits (SBM ’17) studies Computational Science and Engineering in Zurich, Switzerland.

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The Primordial Covenant of Life

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Avi Hirsch

After the Flood waters have finished receding, Hashem establishes a covenant with Noach and with his children (BeReishit 9:8-11):

ח וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶל־נֹ֔חַ וְאֶל־בָּנָ֥יו אִתּ֖וֹ לֵאמֹֽר׃ ט וַאֲנִ֕י הִנְנִ֥י מֵקִ֛ים אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתְּכֶ֑ם וְאֶֽת־זַרְעֲכֶ֖ם אַֽחֲרֵיכֶֽם׃ י וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־נֶ֤פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֔ם בָּע֧וֹף בַּבְּהֵמָ֛ה וּֽבְכָל־חַיַּ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ אִתְּכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ יֹצְאֵ֣י הַתֵּבָ֔ה לְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יא וַהֲקִמֹתִ֤י אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתְּכֶ֔ם וְלֹֽא־יִכָּרֵ֧ת כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר ע֖וֹד מִמֵּ֣י הַמַּבּ֑וּל וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֥ה ע֛וֹד מַבּ֖וּל לְשַׁחֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you—birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well—all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

Several questions emerge from this passage. First, the language of “מֵקִים” and “וַהֲקִמֹתִי” (to establish or maintain) is unusual for the creation of a covenant. The root that is usually used in the Torah for this is “כרת”.i[1] Furthermore, the classic covenant in the Torah is a two-way pact, with both parties swearing oaths to one another.[2] Here, we find no mention of man’s role in the covenant. Hashem’s promise to uphold life in the world by never again bringing a flood seems to be completely independent of the actions of the other party, namely, Noach and his sons. Where is the other side of the covenant?

To shed light on these questions, we will backtrack to the beginning of the Parashah, where we find another covenant between Hashem and Noach. Hashem tells Noach (6:18):

יח וַהֲקִמֹתִ֥י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתָּ֑ךְ וּבָאתָ֙ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֔ה אַתָּ֕ה וּבָנֶ֛יךָ וְאִשְׁתְּךָ֥ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנֶ֖יךָ אִתָּֽךְ:

“And I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives.”

The language here is very reminiscent of the second, post-Flood covenant. The same phrase, “וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת־בְּרִיתִי,” “And I will establish my covenant” appears in both passages, and both of our two questions from the later covenant reemerge here. But here there is a new, overarching question that must first be resolved: What is Hashem’s side of the pact? Unlike in the later covenant, here the text does not explicitly tell us what the agreement is that Hashem will be “establishing” with Noach upon his entering the ark.

Several answers to this question are offered by the commentaries. Ibn Ezra, for example, explains that though the text never tells us this explicitly, Hashem had, in fact, sworn to Noach that He will keep him alive during the Flood. Ramban disagrees, and suggests that Hashem’s guarantee is implicit in the next few verses; namely, that Noach, his family, and all the pairs of animals with them will survive the Flood by entering the ark.

Other commentators, such as Abarbanel and the Netziv, take a different approach entirely, explaining that there was an implicit, primordial covenant that already existed from creation. Although the exact approach here differs among the commentators, the general idea is that from the moment Hashem created Man, a covenant was implicitly created between Hashem and all of humanity upholding the life that was created. This ongoing covenant, Hashem now informs Noach, will be upheld through his survival in the ark.

It is this primordial covenant, I think, that is upheld and reaffirmed twice in Parashat Noach, once before the Flood and once following it. This is not a new covenant that needs to be “created;” instead, it needs only to be reestablished with Noach, once before the Flood and once after.

What, then, is humanity’s role in this eternal covenant? Upon further examination, we do find a responsibility that the human must fulfill in both covenants in Parashat Noach, but in both cases, it appears before the mention of the covenant itself. Pre-Flood, Noach is commanded to build the ark in which he and the animals will be saved (6:14-16); post-Flood, Noach and his children are warned against murder (9:6). Furthermore, in both cases, Hashem details Man’s responsibility immediately prior to reassuring them of the covenant that He will uphold. And in both cases, the responsibility of the human “supports” that of Hashem: Noach must do his part to save Hashem’s creations by building the ark (which he faithfully fulfills), and Hashem, in turn, will save Noach through that ark (which He, too, fulfills); following the Flood, all of humanity is instructed not to end human life, and Hashem, in turn, swears to never again bring a flood to end human life.

Thus, both times the covenant is mentioned in Parashat Noach, it follows the same basic three-part structure: first we have an instruction to humanity to fulfill their responsibility in the covenant, then there is mention of the covenant itself, and finally Hashem’s part in upholding this “primordial” covenant is explained.

However, if the primordial covenant has existed since the creation of the first humans, we would expect to find humanity’s role in this covenant already mentioned when the first humans are created. And indeed, we do find a life-affirming commandment there (1:27-28):

כז וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱ-לֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃ כח וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱ-לֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱ-לֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

Immediately following the creation of man in God’s image, man is commanded to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. This commandment of “פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ,” then, is man’s responsibility in the primordial covenant to preserve life.

The commandment to reproduce, of course, perfectly parallels and supports Hashem’s creation of humanity. Through this process, humanity, having been made “in God’s image,” becomes His partner in creation. While Hashem created the first humans, we have a responsibility to continue that creation. [3]

However, not until Parashat Noach do we find this covenant made explicit in the text. Why is Noach chosen to fulfill humanity’s role as Hashem’s partner in this covenant? Noach is one of the few individuals in the Torah to be described as a man who “walks with God” (6:9). Not only that, but until the Flood, Noach consistently fulfills Hashem’s commands immediately without pausing to question or second guess them.[4] Noach is, therefore, the perfect person to work with Hashem in fulfilling the covenant of life.

But the primordial covenant is eternal. All of humanity, in every generation, has a responsibility to fulfill its part in the covenant by obeying Hashem’s command to preserve life in the world. In this way, we, like Noach, will “walk with God,” becoming His partner by fulfilling His will.


[1] See BeReishit 15:8, 21:27; Shemot 24:8, 34:10 for some of the many examples.

[2] For example, Avraham and Avimelech enter into a two-way pact in BeReishit 21.

[3] The connection between this passage and the reaffirming of the covenant after the Flood (in BeReishit 9) is emphasized by the repetition there of both humanity’s original mission to be fruitful and multiply (9:1,7), and the nature of humanity as having been created “in the image of God” (9:6).

[4] See BeReishit 6:22, 7:5. In fact, until the Flood, the only thing Noach does that is not a response to an immediate command of Hashem is to have three sons, thereby fulfilling his role in the primordial covenant.

Avi Hirsch (SBM 2017) is a junior at Yeshiva University, where he is studying Computer Science.

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Bare Cunning: Cognitive Desire in Eden

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Ben Kaplan

The story of the “original sin” is embedded into both the Jewish and non-Jewish consciousness. While many of us take this story for granted, looking into it on a deeper level can help us understand deep truths about the human condition. In particular, analyzing the linguistic nuances of the original Hebrew can provide deep insight into two distinct types of human desire.

Seemingly identical words lie on each side of the border between the second and third chapters of B’reishit:

וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים, הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וְלֹא, יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ.

וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה’ אֱ-לֹהִים; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱ-לֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן.

In the second perek, the root ערם clearly means that the humans were “naked”, while in the third perek, since presumably none of the animals in the garden were clothed, it is instead translated as “clever.”

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, a proponent of the idea of the deep and interconnected nature of the Hebrew language, separates the two instances of ערם into two distinct linguistic roots.   He connects the root’s definition as “clever” to the Hebrew word ערמה, heap, since a clever person takes many seemingly small actions which are “heaped” together to great effect. Rav Hirsch concludes that the form of ערם meaning naked comes from the root עור, meaning skin. So too, a blind person is called an עור (vowelized differently) since the primary sense he uses to find his way around is touch, which is sensed through skin.

Even if we assume with Rav Hirsch that the two words come from unrelated roots, the use of the same letters to describe humans and animals seems intended to draw a parallel between the naked man and woman and the cunning snake. The deliberate nature of the juxtaposition grows more evident with the acknowledgement that the chapter separation between the two verses is not intrinsic to the Torah itself, but was added by later (by a Christian archbishop in the 13th century). The Masoretic notes make neither a p’tuchah nor s’tumah separation between the two verses.

Some hints from the language of the Torah, as well as from a (somewhat baffling) midrash, may yield a unified definition for the two instances of the root. Rashi on verse 3:1 quotes B’reishit Rabbah as saying that the snake wanted to cause Adam and Chavah to sin due to the desire he felt at seeing them being publicly intimate with each other. This is a reasonable implication of  2:25. The Torah then describes the serpent tempting Chavah to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. At first, Chavah seems to have no desire to eat from the tree, simply answering the serpent’s questions about which trees she may eat from and which one she may not, citing the danger of death. The serpent rejects her concerns, informing Chavah that God does not wish her and her husband to eat from the tree because then “their eyes will open” and they will becomes like gods. Only after this speech is it stated that Chavah desired the tree.

ו וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ, וַתֹּאכַל; וַתִּתֵּן גַּם-לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ, וַיֹּאכַל.

It should be noted that the verse refers to eyes and seeing twice, “Chavah saw… that the tree was temptation for the eyes.” Noticing the oddity that Chavah is only seeing these aspects of the tree now, Rashi comments that it was not the tree that Chavah is seeing, rather she is “seeing” i.e. agreeing with, the argument of the serpent. After Adam and Chavah eat from the fruit of the tree, they begin to feel its effects.

ז וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם; וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת.

Interestingly, the serpent’s promise is partially fulfilled, as the verse testifies that “their eyes opened and they realized that they were naked.” What exactly was the nature of the change wrought by the forbidden fruit? What does it mean that it opened their eyes?

Eyes and vision play a prominent role in the story, as has already been demonstrated. Additionally, seeing and desire seem to be closely related. Chavah “sees” and desires the tree, which “desirable for the eyes.” Additionally, the “opening of the eyes” caused by the fruit of the tree seems to have awakened some form of desire for evil in Adam and Chavah, as is stated explicitly by Rashi in 2:25. However, it seems odd to take this at face value, since the desire to deviate from God’s command clearly existed before eating from from the tree. After all, the very act of eating from the tree was an evil act!

A possible reconciliation of this contradiction is that there was a form of desire that existed before eating from the Eitz HaDaat and a form of desire that only entered the human consciousness afterward. Base, physical desires were absent from the human consciousness until after they ate the forbidden fruit. However, cognitive desires of the mind still existed. This is why the serpent was able to persuade Chavah to eat the fruit and why she only desired the fruit after the serpent gave her an intellectual argument of why she should. The “opening of the eyes” caused by eating the fruit was the human consciousness awakening to the existence of this physical type of desire. As is pointed out by the S’forno (on 3:1), the distinction between cognitive and physical temptation is explicated in Bamidbar 15:39.

וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם

The Torah here warns both not to follow the temptations of the eyes (physical temptations) as well as the temptations of the heart (cognitive temptations). The new awareness of physical temptation is what causes Adam and Chavah to be ashamed of their nakedness after they eat the fruit. The knowledge that they are displaying the parts of themselves that ignite temptation in others is shameful.

If sight is symbolic of the ability to desire that which is external, then nakedness is symbolic of one’s internal existence as an object of desire. As was indicated by the midrash, Adam’s and Chavah’s nakedness ignited temptation in the serpent. If this is true, then a unified definition of ערום can be proposed; namely, an object of desire. While Adam and Chavah ignited physical desire in others, the serpent was ערום in the sense that he ignited cognitive desire in others. His “cleverness” is what allowed him to tempt Chavah to sin. It then makes sense why Rashi connects Chavah’s act of “seeing” to the words of the snake rather than the tree itself. Since physical desire was only awakened by eating the forbidden fruit, the temptation that Chavah “saw” must have been that of the snake’s words.

The idea of a snake being harmful to look at is not only present in our parshah, but in secular sources as well. In Greek myth, the Medusa was a creature with snakes for hair; those who gazed upon her would turn to stone. Likewise, the basilisk featured in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (inspired by the creature of European myth) causes death to those who look into its eyes. In the Disney films The Jungle Book and Aladdin looking into the eyes of a snake (or in the latter case, a snake-shaped staff, which conjures other biblical parallels) causes the gazer to come under its thrall.

Rav Hirsch’s idea of ערום stemming from עור, skin, fits well into this concept as well. The Gemara in Arachin (15b) draws a parallel between a snake who bites and does not eat his prey to one who speaks lashon hara (evil speech). One who speaks lashon hara is inherently making himself into an object of cognitive desire, as it is forbidden to listen to lashon hara as well as to speak it. Since the snake in B’reishit misuses his faculty of speech to tempt others to sin, one who speaks lashon hara is compared to the snake. As is stated on the same amud, the punishment for speaking lashon hara is tzaraat, an affliction of the skin, the עור. This connection is seen strikingly when Moshe is given signs to prove to B’nei Yisrael that God has sent him. The first two signs he is given are his staff turning into a snake and the skin of his hand being covered with tzaraat. Rashi comments on Sh’mot 4:3 and 4:6 that these signs hinted to Moshe that he spoke lashon hara about Israel by saying they would not believe him.  

While certain ascetic streams of thought would have us focus on rooting out physical temptation from our society, B’reishit indicates that the “original sin” had nothing to do with physical desire. Rather, promises of power and glory as well as clever schemes designed to harm others caused the first ever sin. Chazal draw the parallel of such cognitive sins to lashon hara, often spoken in an attempt to increase one’s own place in the social pecking order. In order to truly correct humanity’s most fundamental flaw, our focus must be on treating our fellows well and using our knowledge and cunning to assist our brothers and sisters, rather than using them as stepping stones for our own material gain.

Ben Kaplan (SBM 2017) graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in bioengineering in May 2017. After spending the summer in SBM, he made aliyah in August and is currently working as a madrich at Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion. 

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