Undeserving (parshas Vayeitzei)

Some people’s default attitude in life is “I really deserve more than I have”; others are prone to feeling that “I really don’t deserve what I have.”

Most people fall somewhere on the spectrum between those two extremes, and most people also may experience one of the attitudes at some points, the other at others.

Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, pointed out that, even though Jews are descended from 12 tribes, the sons of Yaakov, we are called Jews (Yehudim, in Hebrew), after only one of those progenitors, Yehudah, or Judah.

That, he contended, is because Jews are meant to embody the sentiment that yielded Yehudah his name — his mother Leah’s declaration at his birth that she was the beneficiary of what she “didn’t deserve.”

Since Yaakov had children from four women and Leah knew her husband was destined to father 12 sons, she expected to bear only three.  Yehudah was her fourth.  And she acknowledged (“odeh,” the root of “Yehudah”) the fact that she had “received more than my share” (Beraishis 29:35; see Rashi).

Traditionally, the first words to leave a Jew’s mouth each morning upon awakening are “Modeh Ani” (or, for a woman, “Modah Ani”) — “I acknowledge.” The acknowledgment is for having woken up, for life itself.  A Jew is meant to take nothing for granted, to take everything he has as a divine gift.

Mind Hunter (parshas Toldos)

Yaakov’s middah is emes, truth, and so Rashi parses Yaakov’s misleading words to Yitzchak to make them true at least on some level.  For instance, allowing his father to believe it is Esav to whom he is speaking, Yaakov says “I am Esav your firstborn.” Rashi interjects a presumed pause in the sentence, rendering it “I am [the one bringing you food]; Esav is your firstborn” (Braishis, 27:19).

Yet one misleading phrase still stands out: “Come eat of my hunted [food]” (ibid), says Yaakov, offering his father the goat meat he could mistake for game.  But it was neither Yaakov’s food – his mother Rivka had prepared it – nor had it been “hunted.”

What occurs is that “hunting” is a word we’ve seen earlier, as the Torah’s description of Nimrod, “a powerful hunter” (ibid 10:9).  And there, Rashi explains that what Nimrod “hunted” and captured were people’s minds.  He used words and subterfuge to amass followers.

Perhaps here, too, Yaakov was subtly, slyly “confessing” to his father that he was engaged in a subterfuge, presenting himself as someone he wasn’t, offering his “hunting” to Yitzchak, his ability to navigate a tricky world.  Thereby demonstrating that he, Yaakov, too, was capable of dealing with that challenging world no less than his brother, something that, as the Malbim and others explain, Yitzchak had assumed was not true.

“If Only…”

It’s human nature, when faced with something tragic, or even just disturbing, to say to oneself, “If only…”  

“If only I had done this… or we had done that… or not done this… or not done that, we could have avoided this outcome.”

But human nature can be misleading. A thought I once heard from someone who couldn’t remember its source suggests that the repetition of the phrase, “the years of Sarah’s life,” in the first pasuk of the parsha, even though the pasuk opened with “And the lifetime of Sarah was 127 years,” teaches us to resist our proclivity to imagine that things could have been different had we only acted differently.

To be sure, there are rightful regrets that we may have. Someone grown obese and unhealthy after overeating junk food for years has good reason to say, “if only.”

But more often than not, post-facto calculi are wrongheaded.  We might think that had Sarah not been told (as per a famous Midrash) about her son having been bound on an altar, she wouldn’t have died at the moment she did, having been spared the shock.

But Sarah’s death was divinely ordained for that moment. “The years of Sarah’s life” were the years granted her. The proximate cause of her death wasn’t its ultimate cause. Its ultimate cause was Hashem’s will.

Someone who comes down with Covid-19 might kick himself for having worn only a simple mask, not an expensive, surgical-quality one.  Or for having spaced himself only 6 feet from others, instead of 10.  We are required to do what is normative practice to prevent sickness — but only that.  And if one had done that and still became sick, he is wrong to agonize over not having done more. He needs to recognize Hashem’s will and now do what is normative practice to, with Hashem’s help, recover.

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When Innocence Really Isn’t

Remarkably, in response to Avimelech’s protest over being punished for taking Sarah, Hashem confirms the king’s insistence that he had acted innocently, believing that Avraham and Sarah, as they had claimed, were brother and sister.

“I, too, knew,” Hashem tells Avimelech in a dream, “that it was in the innocence of your heart that you did this” (Beraishis, 20:6).

So why didn’t Hashem merely prevent Avimelech from touching Sarah?  Why were the king and his family and entourage punished?

Perhaps the answer lies in what Avraham told Avimelech in explanation for having misled him: “Because I said ‘There is no fear of G-d in this place’ ” (ibid, 11).

A leader has the ability, and responsibility, to influence the mores of his society. If the society evidences lack of “fear of G-d,” its leadership is implicated.

No, Thank You

When, as they approach Egypt, Avram asks Sarai to pretend she is his sister, he explains “so that it will be good for me and I will remain alive because of you.” (Beraishis, 12:13)

Rashi’s comment on the words “it will be good for me” – “so that they [the Egyptians] will give me gifts” – puzzled me, as they surely have many, for years.  Avram, who later in the parshah (14:23) spurned even a shoelace from the king of Sdom, is concerned with gifts?

An intriguing possible understanding of Rashi’s words occurred to me. Shlomo HaMelech, in Mishlei (15:27) teaches us that “the one who hates gifts will live.”

It may be that the greatest expression of that attitude isn’t only “in theory,” in hating the idea of gifts, but in actual practice – namely, that it’s the attitude toward an actual proffered gift that helps ensure life. 

And so, perhaps Avram wanted gifts to be offered to him, so that he could “hate” the fact that he received them… with the result being that, as he continues, “I will remain alive…” – echoing Shlomo HaMelech’s words.

Postscript: Interestingly, the concept of shunning gifts as bolstering life is reflected in a snippet from a 1960s folk song:

“Some people never get, some never give;

“Some people never die and some never live.”

Yesh chachmah bagoyim.

Taking On The Divine

What were the builders of the Tower of Bavel thinking?

How could people presumably aware of Hashem think they could somehow stand in opposition to Him?

The “Mei Marom” (R’ Yaakov Moshe Charlop, zt”l) offers a tantalizing thought: The place on earth called Bavel possessed a deep spiritual nature of “overcoming the Divine” – which eventually expressed itself properly in the cases recorded in the Gemara (e.g. Bava Metzia 59b, Rosh Hashana 57b) where a beis din “overruled” Hashem – that is to say, asserted the ability He gave Klal YIsrael to do so.

Perhaps, Rav Charlop suggests, it was that spiritual reality of the place that inchoately resonated with its inhabitants, leading them to feel that, indeed, in their own way, they had the “ability” to challenge Hashem.

Malicious Misrepresentation

I have no beef with anyone who wishes to take issue with anything I’ve written.  But I do object to the publication of something that blatantly and irresponsibly misrepresents what I have written.  Like this recent piece in the Forward, ostensibly responding to an earlier one I wrote in the same medium.

If you read my essay, you will see that nowhere did I argue or insinuate, as Mr. Nosanchuk claims, that that “only Haredi Jewish leaders can speak for our city’s Jewish community.”

Nor does associating me with “violent attacks against journalists” have any respect for truth. In fact, it insults it. I have publicly and repeatedly condemned (in print and on-air) all such behavior, and didn’t reference it at all in my Forward piece, since it was irrelevant to its thesis.

And if Mr. Nosanchuk wishes to attribute to me the claim that Orthodox “practice of Judaism requires an exemption from public-health restrictions,” he really should be required to show where I have ever written such a thing.  I have not. What I did write was that New York Governor Cuomo’s recent edicts were illogical and unfair — to any and all houses of worship. 

I, further, never insinuated anything remotely like the contention that people should “risk their health or the health of their loved ones by attending a large indoor religious gathering.”  Nor would I ever do so.

And I nowhere suggested that non-Orthodox rabbis “have no right to opine on the issue because they interpret Jewish law differently” than I do. I simply noted that non-Orthodox Jews are not hampered as much as Orthodox ones are by Mr. Cuomo’s draconian rules — and that representatives of the former should not call the latter “blasphemous” for standing up for their rights as Americans.  The ugliness and falsehood of that accusation was what my article was about – and something Mr. Nosanchuk chose to utterly ignore.

As to his accusation that I align myself “with a small minority within the Haredi community that has flouted public-health restrictions and resorted to violence against fellow Jews who disagree with them.”  That is beyond untruth; it is perilously close to libel. He maliciously created it out of whole cloth.

As he did his statement that I have resorted to “claims of antisemitism” against, presumably, the governor.  Never have I ever made such a claim, not in my essay, not in any other writings and not in private conversation.

Finally, I didn’t “try” to “spin” the NYJA’s words as name-calling.  Its words were name calling, at least if one considers “blasphemous” an insult.  I really think most people would.