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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 away 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 in one day the distance that Yaakov had travelled in seven. 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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Was Lot Worse Than Esav? Parallels, People(s), and Property

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davey Schoenberg

Who was more antagonistic to our nation, Lot or Esav? We all probably learned in grade school that Esav is obviously the villain, our archnemesis, the literal manifestation of evil. And certainly from the stories in Bereishit, even if we limit ourselves to the text and ignore the numerous midrashim, Esav appears to be the winner of the malevolence match up. The Torah testifies that he planned to kill Yaakov, and we also learn that he “despised” the Abrahamic birthright. In contrast, the only problem between Lot himself and the Abrahamic line is that Lot’s shepherds fought with Avraham’s shepherds. If we add in all the midrashim about how evil Esav was—including one that Esav tried to murder Yaakov by biting his neck—it seems even more clear that Esav’s wickedness trumps Lot’s.

Yet when we look at the laws surrounding their descendants, we get the opposite impression.[1] While Esav’s nation (Edom) can marry into the Jewish people three generations after converting to Judaism (Devarim, 23:8-9), Lot’s descendants [2] can never marry in, even after ten generations (Devarim, 23:4). Additionally, while the Torah forbids the Jewish people from conquering either set of descendants, the language in regard to Esav is much stronger, using the phrase “and you shall guard yourselves very much,” an admonition that is absent when speaking about Lot’s descendants (Devarim 2:4-5, 9, 19). Moreover, there is a special prohibition regarding Esav that the Jews may not even set foot on his descendants’ land, a commandment that is again not applied to Lot (ibid). Finally, the Torah explicitly says we are not to “seek the peace” of Lot’s descendants, but in the very next pasuk says, “Do not despise an Edomite” (Devarim 23:7-8). We see, therefore, that despite our intuition that Esav is worse than Lot, the Torah commands us to treat Lot much more harshly.

To begin understanding this seeming incongruity, we will first take a step back to talk about the word “רכש” (rechush/rachash: property/to amass). According to a Bar Ilan Responsa Project search, the root of this word appears eighteen times in the entire Chumash. Of those, an astonishing sixteen are in reference to Avraham, Lot, Yaakov, or Esav.

Two appearances of the word involve almost identical psukim. When mentioning that Lot’s shepherds fought with Avraham’s shepherds, the Torah states:

וְגַ֨ם־לְל֔וֹט הַֽהֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶת־אַבְרָ֑ם הָיָ֥ה צֹֽאן־וּבָקָ֖ר וְאֹֽהָלִֽים :וְלֹֽא־נָשָׂ֥א אֹתָ֛ם הָאָ֖רֶץ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו כִּֽי־הָיָ֤ה רְכוּשָׁם֙ רָ֔ב וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ לָשֶׁ֥בֶת יַחְדָּֽו:

And also to Lot who travelled with Avraham there were sheep, cattle, tents. And the land could not sustain them to dwell together, because their property was [too] great, and they could not dwell together (13:5-6).

Similarly, when Esav goes away from Yaakov and leaves Israel to go to Har Seir, we read:

וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁ֠יו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֘ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו: כִּֽי־הָיָ֧ה רְכוּשָׁ֛ם רָ֖ב מִשֶּׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו וְלֹ֨א יָֽכְלָ֜ה אֶ֤רֶץ מְגֽוּרֵיהֶם֙ לָשֵׂ֣את אֹתָ֔ם מִפְּנֵ֖י מִקְנֵיהֶֽם:

And Esav took his wives, sons, daughters, and all the people of his house and his cattle and animals and all the acquisitions he had amassed in the land of Canaan, and he went to [another] land from before Jacob his brother. Because their property was [too] great to dwell together, and the land of their sojournings could not sustain them because of their flocks (36:7).[3]

Both Avraham/Lot and Yaakov/Esav, had too much property to be near each other, so they separated. Yet although these psukim are similar, there is a glaring difference between their contexts. In the context of Esav, the previous pasuk refers to his family members as distinct from his possessions: wives, children AND rechush. For Lot, in contrast, people are not mentioned as distinct from the property.

This difference between Lot and the Abrahamic line continues in the rest of Bereishit. When Lot is captured along with Sdom, the Torah notes that the conquerors took “the property of Sdom and Amorah and all their food … and also Lot and his property” (14:11-12). None of their people are mentioned. In contrast, when Avraham saves everyone who was captured, the Torah says he returned “all the property and also Lot his kinsman and his property and also the women and the nation” (14:16). The Torah, when referencing the exact same set of things, mentions “the women and the nation” separately when Avraham is the key actor, but includes them under “property” for Lot.[4]

Similarly, when Avraham leaves Charan, he takes his wife, his nephew, his property, and the “people they had made” (12:5). Again, the people are distinct from the property.

The first time rechush is mentioned directly in regard to Yaakov, when he leaves Lavan, the people are also listed separately (31:17-18). The other time, when the nation goes down to Egypt, not only are the people listed separately, but the Torah then goes into great detail, listing the names of the people who went with him (46:5-26).[5]

Thus, every time the word rechush is mentioned when Avraham, Yaakov, or Esav are the actors, people are treated as distinct from property, but when Lot is acting, people are considered property.[6] Indeed, Lot’s consideration of people, even his own family, as property is evident when the people of Sdom mob his house because of his visitors. Lot says to them, “I have two daughters who have not known a man; I will take them out to you and do with them what is good in your eyes” (19:8). Lot offers up his virgin daughters to be mass raped in order to protect his visitors. Part of the obvious utter revulsion we have towards this is certainly Lot’s casual treatment of his daughters as bargaining chips.

This is exactly the difference between Lot and Esav. Esav treats his own family well: there is a distinction to him between people and property. Lot, however, is a wildcard. No one is safe from him, not even family, because people are just another piece of property to mess with.

We can now answer the question with which we started. Esav can eventually marry into the Jewish people because once we are his family—say, after three generations—we trust him to be good to us. Even if the original Esav was terrible to the Jewish people, we know that if we are family, he will fulfill the basic minimum of treating us well. Esav doesn’t treat people like property. Lot, in contrast, does. Even after ten generations, when we would definitely be family, we cannot be assured that he will be good to the Jewish people because being family with other people means nothing to him: everyone is rechush.

While obviously not ideal, we can accept many negative—even reprehensible—character traits and still be willing to consider someone Jewish. This is not to say we should accept those character traits, but rather that given enough of a baseline, we may welcome someone into the community and then work on improving their actions. Comparing Lot and Esav, however, teaches us that negating the agency of other people must not be tolerated.


[1] Admittedly, the only nation we are commanded to wipe out completely is Amalek, a descendant of Esav. Nevertheless, this is only one portion of Esav’s descendants. Esav as a whole is called Edom (Bereishit 36:1), and this is to whom I refer when I say Esav’s descendants.

[2] Moav and Bnei Amon.

[3] In this week’s sedra.

[4] The king of Sdom also separates people from property, saying to Avraham, “Give me people, and the property take for yourself” (14:21). I’d argue he learned this lesson from Avraham, as Rashi commenting on the section says that a miracle occurred to the king of Sdom, causing him to “believe in Avraham” (Rashi Bereishit 14:10, s.v. be’erot be’erot cheimar).

[5] Well, the names of the males plus Dinah. The women are only mentioned as groups. But that’s a whole different discussion.

[6] There is one more time where rechush is mentioned by Avraham, when Hashem promises him that his progeny will eventually leave Egypt “with great property” (15:14). While in this case, people are not mentioned separately, this is for a clear reason: Hashem is promising that the entire nation will leave Egypt, taking their property with them. There are no separate people for them to be taking along.


Davey Schoenberg (SBM 2018) grew up in Newton, MA and attended Maimonides School before spending two years in Gush. He is currently a Sophomore at Harvard College concentrating in Mechanical Engineering.

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The Kavanaugh Hearings and Torah Conversation

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

A rabbi recently asked a conversion candidate whether the Torah had anything to say about the Kavanaugh hearings. The question was a failure, because the candidate did not feel safe enough to express disagreement with the (wrongly) presumed political consensus of the beit din.  I think the presumption needed to be undone; it was vital to show that Torah conversation and Torah communities are intended to handle and even encourage open disagreement on such questions.

The great issues of the day often become political faultlines.  In a healthy society, the importance of those issues drives people to engage regularly in substantive if heated conversation across those lines.  In an unhealthy society, fear of social fracturing, moral disapproval, or economic reprisal; insecurity; and sheer disregard for the opinions and character of those one disagrees with, lead people to engage only with others who are demonstrably likeminded, and to shy away from authentic disagreement.

Genesis 14:13 describes Avram as an “Ivri,” and Rabbi Yehudah  (Bereishit Rabbah 48:4) understands that to mean that “The whole world was on one side=eiver, and he stood on the other.”  In other words, a Jew is someone willing to be ostracized for the sake of moral principle.  But the medieval exegete Rabbi Yosef Bekhor Shor points out that Genesis 14:13 itself locates Avram in the terebinths of his covenanted allies Aner, Eskhol, and Mamre; Avraham and Sarah had each other; and the Rabbis also describe Avraham and Sarah as making converts (“the souls which they made in Charan”). This combination of willingness to bear unpopularity for the sake of principle, while maintaining human relationships and engaging with others in the hope of convincing them, should make for a healthy society.

One test of whether it succeeds in doing so is the process of conversion itself.  Do candidates see themselves as entering a vibrant conversation which values the differences they bring to Judaism? Or do they see it as too risky to express political opinions that conflict with the apparent consensus of their intended community?

What matters is that we think seriously through the lens of Torah, not that we reach a specific conclusion. We should not pasken politics.

I’ll go further. Thinking through the lens of Torah should almost never lead to an absolutely definitive conclusion regarding an issue about which reasonable moral people have differing intuitions. (This is also true of economics, philosophy, and political science.) Hopefully. it enables us to make better, deeper, and more authentic judgments and decisions.  The Kavanaugh hearings modeled for me the breakdown of political conversation in the United States and reflected the ill health of American political society. I will take the chance here of trying to model a constructive Torah conversation about one aspect of the Kavanaugh hearings, in the hopes of contributing to the health of our community.

I found two Orthodox approaches on the web to the question of whether youthful sins can disqualify a person from public service.

The first, from a group calling itself The Coalition for Jewish Values, stated that

we should be judged on the totality of our lives, not merely on one alleged incident, and certainly not on an incident that is unsubstantiated and unprovable,


It is immoral to besmirch someone’s name in the court of public opinion on ‘evidence’ that would not stand in a court of law.

These propositions were taken as self-evident.

The second, by Forward columnist Avital Chizhik Goldschmidt, cites Maimonides.

Open the Mishneh Torah, where Maimonides unpacks the biblical descriptions of a judge in great detail. Judges appointed to the Sanhedrin, he writes, must be “mighty in their observance of the mitzvot, who are very demanding of themselves, and who overcome their evil inclination until they possess no unfavorable qualities, no trace of an unpleasant reputation, even during their early manhood, they were spoken of highly.” (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2:7, Translation by Eliyahu Touger on 

Interestingly — the teenage behavior of a judicial candidate is relevant, Maimonides says. It is telling of one’s moral character, no matter how long ago it was.

But perhaps what is more interesting is the fact that Maimonides does not only require a judge to be righteous, or rather, sin-less — something that may be, somewhat, measured.

A good “name,” “no trace of an unpleasant reputation,” as elusive as that is, is important for Maimonides. A mere stain on one’s standing, a grave rumor with substantial weight, is enough to disqualify a judicial candidate from being confirmed — probably because a bad repute alone is enough to dangerously devalue a judge in the eyes of the people he serves.

Of these two approaches, I plainly prefer Ms. Goldschmidt’s. She provides textual evidence, and therefore makes space for disagreement. An outsider reading her article could reasonably believe that someone providing plausible counterinterpretations or alternate texts would remain part of her religious community. But I don’t mean to dismiss the CJV’s intuitions, which I think can be reconciled with traditional texts.

From a halakhic perspective, we must of course ask how broadly Maimonides’ position is shared.  For example, the requirement that a judge be “pirko naeh” = “that his reputation be pleasant even during early manhood,” is cited by Tur (Choshen Mishpat 7), but not in Shulchan Arukh. Perhaps Shulchan Arukh thought it was implicit in his citation of the requirement that judges be baalei shem tov = holders of good reputations.  But perhaps he thought it was going too far to require that reputation to have been established in youth.

Maimonides’ list is taken essentially verbatim from Tosefta (Sanhedrin Chapter 7, Chagigah Chapter 2). But the parallel text in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 88b) leaves out pirko naeh (this remains true in all manuscripts available at and in Dikdukei Sofrim).

The pirko naeh requirement is also brought on Taanit 16b with regard to a yoreid lifnei hateivah, a prayer leader. There – as opposed to regarding judges – it has generated extensive discussion in the responsa literature over the past millennium.  (This can be found by searching for variants of the phrase pirko naeh on the Bar Ilan Responsa Project.) Decisors as early as Rav Hai Gaon struggle throughout with on the one hand a recognition that a prayer leader’s past misdeeds can legitimately diminish confidence in their capacity to effectively represent the community before G-d, and on the other hand a social need to reward penitence with acceptance, and a metaphysical claim that “where baalei teshuvah stand, those who have always been completely righteous cannot stand”.  They distinguish between leading prayers on fast days (and perhaps Rosh HaShannah) and on other days; between holding the position of chazan and leading prayers on an ad hoc basis; between prospective appointment and removal from office; etc.  All these distinctions are disputed.

Decisors similarly struggle with the standard of evidence needed to establish a genuinely bad reputation.  Surely one uncorroborated report is not enough – or is it?  The usual Halakhic category invoked is קלא דלא פסיק, a rumor that will not cease.  But sometimes the court feels obligated to do its best to make the rumor cease.

Furthermore, does pirko naeh require one to have now a reputation that one has been blameless throughout, or only to have escaped one’s youth with a perhaps mistakenly unblemished reputation?  At least one case in the responsa literature appears to involve new rumors of youthful offenses in which the accused both denies the worst claims and claims to have repented of the behavior that gave rise to the rumors of sin, as evidenced by his unblemished reputation ever since.

To summarize: Contentions made by both sides make their appearance in the halakhic tradition.  Intuitions held by both sides make their appearance in the halakhic tradition.

Our community would have benefited – might still benefit – from a full scholarly analysis of these materials and a better sense of how past cases were decided. But that would still not yield binding law, as halakhah is fully cognizant that new social arrangements require precedents to be applied thoughtfully rather than mechanically.

I don’t know whether such an analysis would have enabled genuinely healthy conversations in our community about the Kavanaugh nomination and hearings. Some issues may simply be too raw. Our communities of discourse may have sustained so much damage already as to be completely unable to handle an issue that pushes so many buttons so hard. Publishing this scrupulously neutral dvar Torah feels risky, as so many people seem committed to the approach that “anyone who is not the enemy of my enemy is my enemy.” Yet reclaiming our capacity for this kind of conversation seems urgently necessary, for America and for Torah.

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