Category Archives: Jewish Thought

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.

“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.

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.

Plumbing the Meaning of the Torah’s First Word

The Torah’s first verse is purposely unclear.  As the Ramban, Nachmanides, points out, the deepest truths of how the universe was created are unfathomable and inscrutable, hidden, ultimately, in the realm of mysticism, not physical science.

It is intriguing, though, that the Torah’s first word, “Bereishis,” implies, as the Seforno explicitly states, that time itself is a creation – a notion that comports with traditional cosmological physics (if not with scientists who, terrified at the notion of a “beginning,” postulate a “multiverse” of universes, conveniently beyond observation).

Likewise intriguing is that, according to the Talmud, the Torah’s first word can be split into two words, “bara” and “shis.”  While the Gemara sees in “shis” a hint to an Aramaic word meaning “conduit,” hinting to an underground channel into which liquid poured on the mizbe’ach would descend (a channel created at the beginning of time – Sukkah, 49a), the word can also, most simply, mean “six.”

As in the six types of quarks, currently believed to be the fundamental particles of which all matter is, ultimately, comprised.

“He created six”? 

The Devarim-Beraishis Bridge Idea

The Chasam Sofer notes that the Torah’s last word, “Yisrael” and its first one, “Braishis,” share the letters aleph, shin, resh and yud… spelling ashrei.

Ashrei can be translated as “praiseworthy” or “fortunate.”  That latter meaning may be the key to the “bridge idea” connecting the end of the Torah and its beginning, which we seek to connect on Simchas Torah when we complete the yearly Torah-cycle and begin it anew.

Because central to the very idea of the Torah and the people to whom it was given is the need to recognize how truly fortunate we are – to have been granted existence and the opportunity to play a role in the Divine plan, to daily receive Hashem’s gifts of life and sustenance, to be part of Klal Yisrael. That recognition should inform every Jew’s world-view. 

And the joy that it yields should be front and center in our minds during z’man simchaseinu and Simchas Torah.