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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Vayishlach

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5776)
JACOB, ESAU, AND NIETZSCHE
“Esau ran to greet him [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him, and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)
I have always appreciated the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Not that I agree with him; I disagree with almost everything he wrote. Nietzsche’s most famous line was “God is dead.” He taught that the morality taught by Judaism and Christianity was a “slave morality,” meant for the meek and not the strong. He taught that we humans should strive to be as gods; a man should become an ubermensch (literally “superman” long before Clark Kent was conceived.)
I like Nietzsche because he laid out so clearly everything I disagree with. For example, Nietzsche taught that Western thinking went wrong when it rejected paganism. He pointed to the ancient Greek myths regarding the two sons of Zeus, Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo was the god of knowledge and rationality; Dionysus was the god of wine and passion. Nietzsche taught that the West had lost its way by following Apollo, living a rational life, rather than Dionysus, a life controlled by our appetites. He taught the old pagan idea of eternal recurrence – we will be forced to live our lives over and over again. If so, we ought to follow our passions and do what we truly desire to do.
Nietzsche became one of the early founders of existentialism, the idea that we create ourselves and become the kind of people we are destined to be. Hitler remarked that Nietzsche was his favorite philosopher. But Nietzsche would have been horrified by Hitler. He had no use for anti-Semitism. In fact, Nietzsche was wounded trying to rescue a horse being beaten and spent the rest of his life in a sanitarium. His ideas, that God is dead, that we create ourselves, that life is lived with passion, have become prominent in the West.
What does this have to do with Jacob and Esau? The last three weeks we have been reading about the two brothers who fought in the womb and hated one another in life. There is reconciliation in this week’s portion, although hardly a friendship. Jacob and Esau meet after twenty years, hug, and then go their separate ways. Later in the portion Jacob will reprimand his sons for an act of violence against the people who had raped his daughter Dinah. Meanwhile Esau will become the patriarch of a huge clan known for their warrior strength. In the end Jacob seems to represent the rational, careful, occasionally calculating brother. In the end Esau seems to represent the brother who lives by his passions, the one who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. Jacob represents the Apollonian point of view, the rational careful, well-thought out outlook of the West. Esau represents the Dionysian point of view, the passionate outlook of the pagan world.
If this analysis is right, Jacob won out in the West. Nietzsche taught that the carefully thought out religious and ethical systems of Western thinking should be abandoned. It was time to return to the way of life of Esau, a life of passion and self-creation. The God of Jacob is dead; it is time for the gods of Esau to rule. Humans must learn to live lives of passion and self-creation.
In my Wednesday afternoon Bible class we were looking at the personalities of Jacob and Esau. I showed them the quote from the latter prophet Malachi, “Is not Jacob the brother of Esau, says the Lord. I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.” (Malachi 1:2-3) Some of my students became very upset. “How can God hate anybody?” Actually Calvinism teaches that God does favor some people but not others, God loves some people and hates others. I am glad that I am not a Calvinist.
Perhaps what the prophet is saying is the opposite of Nietzsche. Perhaps God loves the part of us humans that is rational, careful, and tries to live an ethical life. Perhaps God hates the part of us humans that simply follows passions and appetites. Perhaps the lesson is that Nietzsche is wrong, God is not dead, and we need to strive to live lives enlightened by the ethics of Western civilization.

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5775)
AFTER WE’RE GONE
“But as she breathed her last – for she was dying – she named him Ben-oni, but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath – now Bethlehem.” (Genesis 35:18-19)
This portion is filled with moments of suffering and sadness. Jacob wrestles with a man (or angel or God) and walks away with a limp he will have for the rest of his life. Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and Leah, is raped and Jacob’s sons take a vicious revenge. Deborah, the nurse who raised Jacob dies on the road. Esau (Edom) who historically became the bitter enemy of Israel flourishes and grows into multiple clans.
The saddest moment of the portion is that Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob, dies in childbirth giving birth to her second son Benjamin. As she is dying, she actually names her son Ben-oni “the son of my suffering.” But his father names him Benjamin which means “the son of my right hand.” Rachel dies and Jacob buries her by the road on the way to what is today Bethlehem. Later he will express his regret in not burying her with the other patriarchs and matriarchs in the Cave of Machpeleh. One can still visit and say prayers today at Kever Rachel “Rachel’s Tomb.”
So now Rachel is gone. Or is she? She will reappear once again almost a millennium later in the words of Jeremiah, lamenting the exile of the Israelites by the Babylonians. Jeremiah speaks of Rachel weeping, crying out for her children going into exile. In the haftarah chanted on the second day of Rosh Hashana in synagogues throughout the world, we read the words of Jeremiah. “Thus said the Lord, A cry is heard in Ramah – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted, for her children who are gone.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
The Midrash builds on this image of the weeping Rachel. Rachel, or at least her spirit, intercedes on behalf of her people travelling into exile. It was Rachel who was able to enact a promise from God to ultimately restore the exiles back to their home land. Today Jews still gather at the Tomb of Rachel and pray that she intercede on their behalf in this world. Helping answer prayers is quite an accomplishment for a woman who has been dead for three millennia.
This raises a question I am often asked. What happens when we die? Do we simply disappear, becoming memories in the minds of other? Are we simply remembered by our works? As Woody Allen famously said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.” Or is there something that lives on – a soul that flourishes after our body is gone? And can the souls of our loved ones intervene for us as Rachel intervenes for her people?
Christianity and Islam have a much stronger emphasis on life in the next world, including heaven and hell. They were deeply influenced by the Greek philosopher Plato who saw the soul returning to the perfect world of the forms. Judaism tends to emphasize life in this world. Live a worthy life now and the next world will take care of itself. Nevertheless, people want to know what happens after we are gone from this world. Allow me briefly to share the answer I give.
I believe there are two possibilities. One is that the brain and the mind are the same thing. The mind is simply what the brain does. Just as the stomach digests food and the heart pumps blood, the brain produces a mind. When we leave this world our brain disappears together with the rest of our body. And when the brain goes, the mind no longer exists. When we die we are gone – period. This is the materialist view. It is the view of many scientists and philosophers, including a number of writers who have popularized atheism.
The second possibility is that the brain and the mind are not the same thing. The brain occupies space; the mind does not. That is why so many people have had out of body experiences by their mind when they are near death. That is why we can sometimes read or touch the mind of someone far away. How often do we think about someone we have not heard from in a while, and suddenly they phone us? It is as if minds touch across a distance.
If the mind is not simply the brain, when the brain dies it does not mean the mind dies. The mind or spirit can return to another dimension, perhaps to come back again in the future. This is the view of non-materialists or dualists. It has also been the view of Judaism through the ages. We are more than mere bodies, and perhaps like Rachel, the souls of our loved ones can intervene from the next world.
PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5774)
FORGIVENESS
“Esau ran to greet him [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him, and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)
After twenty years of estrangement, the brothers Jacob and Esau are reunited. When they had last seen each other, Jacob had stolen Esau’s first-born blessing. Esau was threatening to murder Jacob. Now twenty years later, they embrace, kiss, and weep. They will never become best friends, but at least the estrangement is over.
One of the biggest issues I deal with as a rabbi is family estrangement. Brothers or sisters do not speak with each other, parents no longer see their children and children cut themselves off from their parents. Sometimes it is necessary; no one is obligated to remain in a relationship with someone destructive or abusive. But such estrangement is always sad. When I hear about such family estrangement, particularly before a family simcha such as a bar/bat mitzvah or wedding, I always ask, “Would this be a good time to try to rebuild a relationship?” Sometimes at these events, people who have been estranged for years, embrace. Sometimes there are new beginnings.
Often such rebuilding requires forgiveness. The Torah never says whether Esau forgives Jacob for stealing his blessing, nor whether Jacob forgives Esau for threatening to kill him. But forgiveness is at the heart of breaking down family estrangement. Therefore it would be useful to discuss how our tradition views forgiveness. Christianity sees forgiveness as the highest form of love, as the Christian Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Judaism has a somewhat different approach. I found the words of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of a number of books including Jewish Literacy, to be particularly helpful.
Rabbi Telushkin sees three possibilities. Sometimes forgiveness is a religious obligation. Sometimes forgiveness is a religious prohibition. And perhaps most often, forgiveness is neither an obligation nor a prohibition, but simply what the Rabbis call eitza tova – “good advice.”
Forgiveness is a religious obligation if someone has truly done teshuva – “repentance” and come to us asking for forgiveness. In fact, Jewish tradition teaches that if a person comes once asking for forgiveness, we can turn the person down. If he or she comes twice, we can still turn them down. But if a person comes a third time and we turn them down, it is no longer their sin but ours. We are obligated to forgive.
Forgiveness is a religious prohibition if someone else was the victim. As a rabbi I am often asked, “Why can’t you Jews forgive the Nazis.” My answer is always the same. “It is not up to me to forgive the Nazis. It is up to the victims. And that will have to happen in the next world.” In a family situation, if a family member has been abusive, the one who can forgive is the victim of abuse. It is not the responsibility of other family members to forgive.
Forgiveness is neither an obligation nor a prohibition in other situations. If someone has wronged someone else and never apologized, it still is worthwhile to forgive. Holding on to anger is never healthy. Holding on to such anger at someone else is like holding on to a hot coal hoping someone else will be burned. We only end up burning ourselves. To forgive is to let go of that hot coal. Or to put it differently, to forgive is to admit that we cannot change the past, we can only change the future.
In counseling situations, I have found the best insight is brought by one Jewish commentator who taught, “Did the person wrong you because they were evil? Or did the person wrong you because they were weak? (Aruch HaShulchan Yoreh Deah 240:39) If someone hurt someone else out of human weakness, perhaps that gives us an opening to forgive. So like Jacob and Esau, perhaps family members can embrace once again.

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5773)
ESAU’S DESCENDENTS
“So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir – Esau being Edom.” (Genesis 36:8)
Chapter 36 is probably the most boring chapter in all of Genesis, if not the entire Torah. It consists of a long list of names of various clans, detailing who descended from whom and who were the various kings who ruled in Seir. None of these people is either a progenitor or a descendent of the people Israel. In fact, they are the outsiders. So why does the Torah take the time to list them?
The chapter speaks of the descendents of Esau, the rejected brother of Jacob. Esau’s name was also Edom, a nation encamped on the southeast corner of the Dead Sea. The name Edom really means “red” based on Esau asking Jacob to taste the red lentil soup he had made. Later according to Jewish tradition, Edom came to stand for the Roman Empire. And to the Rabbis of the Talmudic period, Edom became the breakaway faith from Judaism that flourished throughout the Roman Empire – Christianity. It seems that reading Genesis chapter 36 is like reading about the flourishing of Christianity.
This seems like a worthy time to speak about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, an association that goes back to the struggle in the womb between Jacob and Esau. Christianity certainly grew out of Judaism; in fact, Jesus and the apostles were all Jews. It was Paul, also a Jew, who took Christianity in a different direction. According to Paul, the followers of Jesus do not need to be bound by Jewish law. They do not need to be circumcised or follow the dietary laws. Not laws but faith became the watchword of Christianity.
Thus began a split between the mother and the daughter faiths that would continue until the present day. Jews believed that they were a people who lived under a covenant with God. Christians believed that the original covenant was overturned, God making a new covenant with a new Israel, the believers in Jesus. (In fact, the name New Testament really means “new covenant.”) To Christians the world was fallen through the sin of Adam. Only through God’s grace could the world be saved. And God’s grace came through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This differed markedly from the Jewish view that the world was not fallen, but was broken. By living under the covenant, Jews could repair the brokenness of God’s world (tikkun olam.)
According to Christianity, if God had broken the covenant with the people Israel, there was no reason for the continued existence of the Jews. So began a long and painful history of suffering, from the Inquisition to the Crusades. Some of that anti-Jewish feeling continues into our own day with the attempts of liberal Christian churches to call for a disinvestment in Israel. No wonder my grandparents would cross to the other side of the road when walking in front of a church. No wonder that the historian Arnold Toynbee called the Jews a “fossil people.” The conflict of Jacob and Esau has gone on for too long.
However, something has changed. Perhaps it took the events as tragic as the holocaust to become the catalyst for this change. But the change is real. Christians have reevaluated their relationship with the Jewish people. Both the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestants have developed a new attitude towards the Jews. Jews are no longer blamed for killing Jesus. The Church has accepted the notion of a dual covenant – the old one between God and the people Israel and the new one between God and believers of Jesus. Jews and Christians have begun to work as a team to make this a better world. Christian clergy speak in synagogues and rabbis speak in churches (I have done it many times.) Slowly but inevitably, the descendents of Jacob and the descendents of Esau are learning to embrace one another.
Certainly there are some Christians of the extreme who teach hateful teachings. But they are not the mainstream. (We have more than our share of extremist Jews who also teach hateful teachings.) As a rabbi, I believe in the original covenant God made with the Jewish people. But I also believe that a faith like Christianity, with over a billion adherents, has done much to spread the ideas of our Torah to the world. Like Jacob reconciling with Esau at the beginning of our portion, the time has come for reconciliation between Judaism and Christianity. It is happening in our lifetimes.

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5771)

WRESTLING WITH GOD
“Said he, your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)

Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet may have said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But in Jewish tradition names make a difference. In this week’s portion Jacob receives a new name: Israel. He wrestles all night with a being – some say a man, some say an angel, and some say his own conscience. Jacob is injured, but he holds on to his adversary and demands a blessing. His name becomes Israel, which means “wrestles with God.”
The Jewish people are known as the people Israel, the people who wrestle with God. Jewish tradition is filled with people who refuse to passively accept God’s decrees, but rather actively confront God. Abraham the father of the people Israel bargains with God to try to save the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Job calls God to trial after enduring every kind of suffering. On the High Holidays I have often told various versions of the story of Moshe the Innkeeper, who stood before God on Yom Kippur with two lists. He prayed, “O God, this shorter list contains my sins against you this past year. This longer list contains your sins against the Jewish people this past year. If You forgive me for my sins, I will forgive You for Yours.” Only a people who believe in wrestling with God could invent such a story.
Most of us think of religion as passivity in the face of divine decrees. Religion teaches serenity and acceptance. In fact Islam, which shares many ideas with Judaism, literally means “surrender.” One surrenders one’s self to God’s will. Often these ideas are tied in with a powerful belief that the reward is in the next world. One can more easily accept adversity in this world if one will be rewarded in the next. The idea that religion is about wrestling with God seems radical.
I learned about these ideas long ago when I was writing my first book on the Jewish view towards infertility and adoption. For my wife and myself, the pursuit of having a family was a struggle and we would not rest until we succeeded. I interviewed a couple I knew who were deeply religious Christians, also struggling with infertility. But their attitude was so different from ours. The woman told me with great serenity, “We would love to have a child. But so far it has not happened. I suppose God simply has a different plan for us. We will follow God’s plan.” I do not think that I have ever met a Jewish couple who would react that way.
Our tradition is built on the idea that we are partners with God in perfecting this world. (I will deal with this issue in greater detail this Sunday in my Rap with the Rabbi when I speak about – what does it mean to be human?) God does not want silent partners nor passive partners. God wants partners who are willing to struggle and try to make this world a better place. I used that argument in my book on infertility to say that God allows whatever medical procedures are reasonable to help a couple create a baby. With this argument, I disagreed with many in the Christian community, particularly the Catholic Church, who said such medical techniques were “unnatural.”
To wrestle with God means to be a bit unsatisfied with the world as it is. It means admitting that God made a world which is tov meod “very good” but not yet perfect. It means constantly struggling. When people approach me about converting to Judaism, I often tell them that becoming a Jew is like marrying into a loud, fractious family. It is a family where people like to complain, where there is always a little bit of dissatisfaction. If the potential convert could fit into such a family, they are welcome to join the Jewish people. But if their view of religion is passivity, serenity, and acceptance of whatever God throws their way, conversion is probably not a good idea.
We are Israel, the people who wrestle with God. And when we wrestle with God according to the Talmud, God sits on the holy throne laughing and saying, “My children have defeated me.” (Baba Metzia 59b)

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5770)

BURIAL PLACES

“Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Eprath – now Bethlehem.”
(Genesis 35:19)

When Albert Einstein died in 1955, his body was cremated. Cremation is totally forbidden by Jewish law, but Einstein was not a religious Jew. He was concerned that if he were buried according to traditional Judaism, his grave would become a shrine. He was never comfortable with becoming a celebrity in life, and he did not want his grave to become a site of pilgrimage in his death. So his ashes were scattered in the waters where he loved sailing.
An interesting aside – Einstein was cremated but not his brain. Without permission, the medical examiner kept the brain. Only after the fact did he get permission from Einstein’s family, claiming his brain could be used for scientific research. Meanwhile, the medical examiner moved around the country taking the brain with him. He sent pieces to various researchers but nothing extraordinary was ever found about the brain. In fact, a journalist wrote a true account of driving cross country with the brain called Driving Mr. Albert.
When Moses died, he had the same concern. Would people make his grave a shrine, worshipping a piece of ground rather than the one God? The Torah teaches that God actually buried Moses “and no one knows his burial place to this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:6) There is always a danger that a physical place will become more than a mere burial site; it will be the object of worship. To worship the physical is idolatry.
However, when Rachel dies in this week’s portion, Jacob buries her on the side of the road on the way to Bethlehem. Rachel’s grave became a kind of a shrine. Later the prophet Jeremiah would speak of Rachel crying out from the graveside for the children of Israel. “This said the Lord, A cry is heard in Ramah – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone.” (Jeremiah 31:15) You can visit kever Rahel – Rachel’s tomb – today on the roadway to Bethlehem. Despite the security concerns in this area, it is always filled with Jews praying for mother Rachel’s intercession. Often Jews who are infertile pray for children, as Rachel herself prayed in her lifetime.
There are other gravesites that have become shrines. On Meron in northern Israel, thousands make a pilgrimage each year at the festival of Lag B’Omer. Meron is the grave of the great Talmudic mystic Shimon bar Yochai. Many Orthodox Jews believe he is the author of the Zohar (a book actually written centuries after his death.) Meron has become a center of bonfires, celebrations, and first haircuts for three year old boys.
Closer to home in Queens New York, is the Ohel Chabad Lubavitch where Rabbi Menachem Mendal Schneerson is buried. Buses run regularly from Manhattan for those who want to visit, and there is even a fax machine for those who want to send prayer requests to graveside. Many Lubavitchers believe that one day the rebbe will return from the dead as the Messiah. Meanwhile, his burial site attracts crowds.
All of this raises a fascinating question. Should we be worshipping a piece of ground because someone we admire is buried there? I try to get out to Los Angeles on a regularly to visit the cemetery where my parents and my brother are buried. I consider it a sign of respect for their memory. But I have no illusions that it is holy ground. Once again, when something physical becomes a shrine instead of a mere place, there is a danger of idolatry.
I mentioned Einstein’s brain. His brain was a mere physical object. It was his mind which made up the greatest physicist since Isaac Newton. His brain may be in a jar in the back of a journalist’s car, but his mind is no longer with us. So it is when someone dies, their remains may be with us, but their spirit is in another world. A grave site is important but it should not become a shrine.

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5769)

STRUGGLING WITH GOD

“Said he, your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings both divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)

While driving up to Orlando this week, I listened to a book on CD – Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir by Shalom Auslander. The book was both fascinating and troubling. It speaks of Auslander’s struggle whether or not to circumcise his first born son. But the heart of the book is a memory of growing up in an extremely Orthodox and extremely dysfunctional family in Monsey, NY.
The book was troubling because Auslander spends much time cursing God and making fun of traditional Jewish practices. On the other hand, as he describes the way he was raised, it is easy to understand his impatience for all things Jewish. He was raised with a view of God as a bully in the sky. As he was taught by his Yeshiva teachers, he had better keep each of the 613 commandments in all their Rabbinic detail or else God will destroy him or a member of his family.
As he grows up in this kind of family with an extremely abusive father, he puts God to the test. How will God react if he eats non-kosher food? Goes to the mall on the Sabbath? Reads pornography? Smokes marijuana? Shoplifts? Finally, how will God react if he does not circumcise his son at all? What if he circumcises him but not on the eighth day according to Jewish tradition? Auslander admits towards the end of the book that he is not observant but he is religious; he cannot get God out of his mind. He is constantly struggling with God.
As I listened to him on the CD (usually professional actors record these books but Auslander read his own work), I wanted to sit down and talk to him. The Jewish God, the one I believe in, is not some kind of celestial bully who threatens us into submission. The God I believe in is one I can wrestle with, argue with, and struggle with. In fact, our very name Israel means “struggles with God.”
There are other religions that teach submission to God’s power and righteousness. In fact, that is the meaning of Islam – submission to God. Many religions seem to emphasize a passivity and acceptance of whatever is in the world. I still have vivid memories of speaking with a Christian couple unable to have children when my wife and I were struggling with our infertility. They said, “I guess it is God’s will that we not have children. God must have other plans for us.” I never hear that kind of language from Jews.
To be a Jew is to wrestle with God. It hearkens back to this week’s portion, where Jacob wrestles with an angel or a messenger all night long. (The Torah is never clear whether this is God, one of God’s angels, or a human being.) Eventually the mysterious messenger blesses Jacob and changes his name to Israel, “wrestles with God.” Jacob thigh has been injured and he limps away. To remember this incident, Jews do not eat the sciatic nerve (or in America, the entire rear end of the animal. Sorry – no kosher top sirloin.)
Actually the idea of wrestling with God goes back even further. Abraham argues with God to save the people of Sodom and Gemorrah. Later Moses will argue with God to save the people Israel after the Golden Calf. Job calls God to a trial over his suffering. Throughout the Talmud various Rabbis argue with God. In one such story, God finally says with a smile, “My children have defeated me.” There are countless Hasidic stories about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev who was the defender of the Jewish people.
Auslander wrote his memoir to distant himself from his Orthodox Jewish heritage. But deep down it is an extremely Jewish memoir. For to Jews God is a partner with whom we struggle and wrestle. Throughout the book Auslander is struggling with God. Throughout history we Jews have struggled with God. It is out of these struggles that we have learned to perfect God’s world.

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5768)

RETURNING HOME

“Then Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you.”
(Genesis 32:10)

First a personal note – thank you to everyone who expressed concern about my wife, Evelyn. She is feeling a little better, although we are still waiting for the final results from various doctors. We went away together for three days to Bradenton, FL near Sarasota, where our oldest son Natan is an English teacher in a local middle school. The trip was therapeutic for both of us. On this trip I had a conversation with our son that gave me the idea for this week’s message.
Natan who loves literature, mentioned that there are only a few great themes which make up the plot of almost every work of fiction. We spoke about such themes as forbidden love, the stranger in town, the journey. These themes seem to be part of our shared unconscious, to use Carl Jung’s term. In reading this week’s portion, I realized that there is another great theme of literature that is a deep part of human consciousness – the return home. We all long to return home.
This week Jacob returns to his homeland after a twenty-year absence. He is very frightened, he had left home fleeing from his brother Esau who sought to kill him. Now he must come home and be reunited with Esau. There is a measure of reconciliation between the two brothers, although there still is no warmth. They will go their separate ways. And Jacob realizes upon returning home that he cannot go back to what was. His parents are gone, his children (with the exception of Benjamin who was yet to be born) are grown, and he has changed. We may long to go home, but as Thomas Wolfe wrote, “you can’t go home again.”
The longing to return home comes to the forefront of our consciousness on this Thanksgiving weekend. We dream of recapturing the past, of traveling “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.” There is something very deep in our shared emotions that wants simply to go home. My wife and I feel it. We long for those Thanksgiving dinners when our children were young and our parents were alive and three generations sat around the table eating turkey. But it cannot happen again. Our parents are gone, our children our grown, and the world has changed.
Evelyn and I are lucky this year. All three of our children are coming home. It is rare when all five of us are sleeping under the same roof and eating around the same table at the same time. And yet we know that even this joy will not last forever. Our children will eventually meet loved ones of their own and may spend future Thanksgivings with them. As hard as we try, we cannot recreate home.
Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of the myth of eternal return. We are all fated to relive our past over and over. It is part of the ancient pagan view of the great cycle of life, or as the Lion King might put it, The Circle of Life. One of the great scholars of the history of religion, Mircea Eliade, wrote an entire book called The Myth of the Eternal Return. Eternal return is part of the mythology of every ancient culture (with the exception of the early Hebrews.) Obviously there is something very deep in the human psyche about returning to what once was. It is a deeply comforting vision that everything that was will be once again. But in another sense it is sad. For if everything returns to what it was, there is no room for growth and change.
The Bible develops a different metaphor for life. The central theme of the book of Genesis is not about returning home but rather leaving home. Abraham must leave home to found a new religion. Jacob only grows when he leaves home. Eliade writes, “Under the `pressure of history’ and supported by the prophetic and Messianic experience, a new interpretation of historical events dawns among the children of Israel.”
This year Evelyn and I became empty nesters. I love it when my children come home for Thanksgiving. But I will also be happy when they leave. I know that if they are to grow, find their paths, and transform the world, they must leave home. We humans need to replace Nietzsche’s myth of the eternal return with the Abraham’s vision of “Go forth.” As Jacob learned in this week’s portion, none of us can ever truly go home again.

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5766)

PERSONAL EVOLUTION

“So Jacob named the place Peniel meaning, I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” (Genesis 32:31)

Last week I wrote about evolution and intelligent design, and received far more comments – both positive and negative – than I usually receive. I believe evolution is part of the way the universe works. All phenomena, particularly life moves gradually towards greater complexity and higher levels. But unlike many scientists, I do not believe it is a totally blind, random process. When I step back and look at the overall scheme of things, I see intelligence behind the changes.
One of the great insights I have learned from Jewish tradition is that what is true for the universe as a whole is also true in each of our individual lives. We each go through a personal evolution. Our consciousness goes from a lower sense of being to a higher one. We relive in our own minds the history of evolution.
In a similar way, our sense of morality also evolves. This idea was already promulgated by Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg taught that each of us goes through a series of steps in our moral development. The lowest level of moral behavior is based on obedience and fear of punishment. There are a series of six steps, and only a small minority of people reach Kohlberg’s highest step, which is principled conscience. People can only develop stage by stage from one level of morality to another.
Jewish mystical tradition contains a similar idea. Our soul evolves from a lower to a higher level of being, going through four stages in the process. The lowest level of the soul is called nefesh, mere consciousness. It is the soul in the material world. Perhaps we should see this as the soul of a lower animal or a very young child, who is aware and reactive to stimuli. The soul is aware of its separate existence, but has no sense of empathy beyond itself. Philosophers might call this solipsism, the belief that only I exist. It is the most selfish stage.
As we grow older, the soul enters the ruach stage. This is the soul as an emotional being. This is the soul of passion, moved by emotions, feelings, and appetites. This level of the soul often controls our teenagers. They act according to emotions – appetites, peer pressure, anger and rebellion, sexual drives, strong feelings of love and hate. That is why adults have such difficulty dealing with teens. Unfortunately, I meet a lot of adults who never seem to move beyond the ruach level of the soul.
One of the goals of life is to evolve to the next higher level, what mystics call the neshama level of the soul. This is the soul aware of others. I sometimes call it the reflective soul. Appetites and passions are suppressed in order to focus on the needs of the other. Empathy becomes important. It is this level of the soul which makes us uniquely human. An animal is driven by appetite and instinct; a human is able to put his or her own needs aside to focus on the needs of the other. When we evolve to this stage in our life, our humanity begins to shine through.
This week’s portion contains one such moment of evolution. Jacob has been in conflict most of his life. His conflict began with his brother Esau, and continued with his father-in-law Laban. Conflict had become part of his household, particularly between the beloved but infertile wife Rachel and the hated but fertile wife Leah. We can compare Jacob to Elkanah, Hannah’s husband. On Rosh Hashana we read that when Hannah had cried over her infertility, Elkanah had been sympathetic and caring. “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8) Jacob on the other hand became angry at Rachel, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2)
Jacob was a man ruled by passion. But in this week’s portion he changes. He has an encounter with an angel, or some would say with his better self. He walked away, or perhaps more accurately limped away, a changed man. He even received a new name, Israel, which means wrestles with God. He was able to encounter his brother with a new attitude and make peace. His soul reached a new level. Perhaps the story of Jacob and the angel symbolizes Jacob’s evolution to a higher stage of being.
There is a highest stage of the soul which some of us reach, but only for short periods of time. Kabbalists call it chaya, the most spiritual level of the soul, at least in this material world. This is when the self all but disappears, becoming one with the other. Our own needs and appetites totally fade as we recognize the connection our soul has with all other souls, with the universe as a whole, and with the Creator of the universe. It is the opposite of solipsism; the soul loses itself in relationship to the other. The chaya level of the soul only lasts for moments; even the greatest mystic must return to this world. But reaching the chaya level can transform us.
Through our lives we can help our soul evolve from nefesh to ruach, then to neshama, and if we are lucky to chaya. If God causes evolution in the world to higher and higher forms of life, then perhaps we are imitating God when we help our soul evolve to higher and higher levels.

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5764)

DOES PRAYER WORK?

“Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; also I fear he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike.”
(Genesis 32:12)

Jacob prepared to meet his brother Esau, who had threatened to kill him. According to tradition, he prepared in three ways – with gifts for appeasement, with war if necessary, and finally with prayer. I can understand the gifts and the war. But when facing a bitter enemy with the ability to destroy you, does prayer really work?
How often have I been asked to pray for someone going through a crisis, whether an illness, an accident, or bad times in their lives. And how often have people become angry with me. “Rabbi, your prayer did not work. With all your prayers, my loved one still died.” It is so tempting to answer with that old cliché, “God did answer your prayer, but God answered `no.'”
In the recent movie Bruce Almighty, Bruce, a Buffalo newscaster played by Jim Carrey is given all of God’s powers for a few weeks. In one particularly funny scene, Bruce checks his computer email and is overwhelmed with prayer requests. He finally answers “yes” to everybody. Chaos ensues when, among other disasters, hundreds of people win the lottery. The point – obviously we cannot realistically live in a world where God always answers “yes.” (I love it when sports coaches speak of their prayers to God before the big game. Is the winning team the one that God roots for. Obviously such use of prayer is absurd.)
Perhaps we are misunderstanding what prayer is really about. The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah which comes from the word l’hitpallel, a word meaning “to judge yourself.” Prayer is something we do to change ourselves, not to change God. God is not a giant vending machine where, if we put in the right change we get the right result. Rather, God is the spiritual dimension of our existence. Each of us shares the breath of God within ourselves. And prayer helps us change ourselves.
We pray to God for strength and courage. We pray to God for wisdom and insight. We pray to God for serenity and peace. We pray to God for clarity before difficult decisions. We pray to God for focus before the big game so we can do our best, whether we win or lose. We pray to God for help in making the right medical decisions, finding the right doctors, building the resolve to cope with disease. We pray not to change God but to change ourselves.
So it was with Jacob’s prayer. Following the prayer, Jacob had an encounter with a man who wrestled with him all night, before changing his name to Israel the next morning. Many commentators believe the wrestler was Jacob’s own conscience, his dark side, the side of Jacob who had tricked his brother and created the enmity between siblings. Jacob’s prayer was really to confront his brother as a new man, to change himself.
Is prayer only to change ourselves? What about praying for someone who is sick, perhaps someone we do not even know personally? Does such prayer work? At least some scientists seem to claim that such prayers can help heal.
I believe there exists a spiritual dimension to reality that we are just beginning to understand. Our minds dwell in that spiritual dimension. And yet, our minds affect the material world. My mind tells me to raise my hand, and, miracle of miracles, my hand goes up. The spiritual can affect the material. So too, prayer may have affects in the physical world that are difficult to comprehend. Perhaps things can change in mysterious ways because people pray.
I visit many hospitals as a rabbi. I always offer to pray with the patients I visit. It is fascinating that people who are atheists when they are healthy find room for prayer when they are sick. Perhaps they realize, on some spiritual level that we do not quite understand, that prayer really does work.

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5763)

WRESTLING WITH AN ANGEL

“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”
(Genesis 32:25)

(Note – I appreciate Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz for his insights into this story.)
Twenty years earlier Jacob had fled from his brother Esau, who threatened to murder him. Now Jacob made all the preparations for a reunion with his brother. The night before that fateful reunion he was left alone by the banks of a river. There someone wrestled with him until the break of dawn. The person blessed Jacob and changed his name to Israel, and Jacob walked away with a limp.
With whom did Jacob wrestle? The Torah is vague. The Torah teaches that Jacob was left alone. So the most obvious answer is that Jacob wrestled with himself. Perhaps the wrestling was between his good and his evil inclinations. The evil inclination had caused Jacob either to hide himself or to flee whenever he confronted a difficulty. He hid his true identity from his father, he fled from his brother, he later fled from his father-in-law. The good inclination said that it was time to stand up and confront difficulty rather than hiding or fleeing. And so the good and the evil within Jacob argued.
Perhaps Jacob wrestled with an angel. According to the prophet Hosea, Jacob will be punished because “In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and by his strength he strove with a godlike being. He strove with an angel and prevailed.” (Hosea 12:3-4) There was a belief in spiritual beings, messengers from God who interact with humans. Today mystics still speak of spiritual forces in the universe that confront humans at key moments. Perhaps it was an angel, or perhaps it was a demon. In the Rabbinic Midrash, the godlike being was actually Esau’s guardian angel. Before Jacob could confront Esau in this physical world, their spirits had to meet in the spiritual dimension.
Perhaps Jacob actually wrestled with God. After all, the Torah teaches that Jacob’s name was changed to Yisrael Israel which means “wrestles with God.” The entity who fought with Jacob said, “You have striven with God and man and prevailed.” He refused to give his name, just as God does not give His holy name. Jacob named the place Peniel, which means “the face of God.” “I have seen God face to face and prevailed.” (Genesis 32:31)
The Jewish people are called Israel, wrestles with God. We are a people who never passively accept God’s world as is. We strive to envision God’s world as it should be. Wrestling with God is a metaphor for the Jewish mission in the world. How different from the word Islam which means “surrenders to God.”
So did Jacob wrestle with himself, with an angel, or with God? Ultimately, they all mean the same thing. Jacob had a moment of confrontation. He walked away with a new name and a new mission in life. He also walked away with a pronounced limp, never to walk normally again. In this key moment, Jacob became a symbol for every human being.
We all face moments in our lives that change us forever. We confront our true self, the good and the evil inclinations battling within us. We confront our guardian angel, or perhaps demons within us. We confront God, and wrestle with the question, “What does God really want from us?” We walk away recharged and refreshed, with a new mission and a better outlook. We also walk away damaged, injured by such a life changing confrontation.
The scene of Jacob wrestling with an angel is so powerful because it reflects a universal truth. We all have moments that change us forever. Like Jacob, we all need that moment alone to confront our demons and our past. If we are fortunate, we will walk away renewed, having seen God face to face, and ready to do God’s will in the world.

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5762)

WORDS HAVE POWER

“And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, the same is Bethlehem.”
(Genesis 35:19)

Sometimes the Torah gives us insights with a mere hint.
In this week’s portion we read of the tragic death of Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob. Rachel died while giving birth to Jacob’s youngest son Benjamin; in her pain, Rachel originally named the boy Ben-Oni, literally “the son of my suffering.” Rachel was buried on the road to Bethlehem, the only one of the patriarchs and matriarchs not buried in the Cave of Machpelah.
Why did Rachel die so young and so unexpectedly? In last week’s portion, we read about Rachel stealing her father’s idols. Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, confronted Jacob and asked who had stole his household gods. Jacob, not knowing that his wife was the thief, shouted out the words, “With whomever you find your gods, that person shall not live.” (Genesis 31:32) One wonders if Jacob’s own words came back to haunt him, and whether he had inadvertently caused his own wife’s death.
There is a classic teaching from the book of Proverbs, “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21) Words have power. After all, God created the entire universe with words. Perhaps the Torah is trying to teach that a proper word can create a world. Yet an improper or ill-conceived word can destroy a life. Jacob spoke without being cognizant of the long term effects of his hasty words. The hidden message of this week=s portion is how the tongue can destroy.
For a number of weeks I spoke about the meaning of the phrase, humans were created “in the image of God.” We humans share in some of God’s power in a matter that raises us above our fellow creatures in the animal kingdom. Among the most important human attributes is the power to speak. God spoke and the world came into being. We humans speak and we can create or destroy worlds of our own.
Children often say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Adults know better. Sticks and stones can cause physical damage, but such injuries can heal. Words can cause psychic damage that often never heals. The parent who constantly puts down their child words will create an adult who cannot function in the world. The wife who bad mouths her husband undermines his self-esteem and self-confidence, and will often destroy a marriage. The neighbor who spreads malicious gossip can destroy a reputation and sometimes a life. The boss who harangues his or her employees creates a work environment that is destructive and ultimately undermines the business.
On the other hand, lovers can cements their commitment to one another with words. A kind word can heal the sick and comfort the troubled. A word of encouragement can make a huge difference in the ability to overcome obstacles and succeed. The words “I’m sorry” can heal the largest rift. Words of prayer can connect us to the spiritual dimension of life and empower us to overcome obstacles. There is power in words.
When human beings built the Tower of Babel to challenge God, God punished them by removing part of their most Godlike power. They lost the ability to speak with one another. The power to speak brings us closer to God. With the power of the tongue, we can create worlds or we can destroy worlds.

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5761)

FACING OUR ENEMY

“Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children.” (Genesis 32:12)

I once saw a cute sign on someone’s desk: “Friends May Come, and Friends May Go, but Enemies Accumulate.” Nations accumulate enemies, sometimes like Israel by their very existence. And each of us, in our daily lives, also accumulates enemies. There are people who dislike us, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for trivial reasons, and too often for no reason at all.
In our portion, Jacob was about to be reunited with his bitter enemy, his brother Esau. The brothers had not seen one another in twenty years. Jacob had fled after Esau threatened to kill him. Now after their long separation, Jacob sought a reconciliation. According to Rashi (on Genesis 32:8), “He prepared himself in three ways, with gifts, with prayer, with war.”
How are we to approach our enemy? Perhaps we can learn from Jacob. First, we approach with gifts. How often does our own pride prevent us from coming forward and making a concession, trying to make peace, apologizing, giving a small something to show our good intentions. How often is it easier to hate in our hearts then to make overtures of peace.
It is so natural to dehumanize our enemy. That is what soldiers do in war. During World War II the Japanese became Japs. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese became gooks. How often do we Jews see the Palestinian Arabs as less than human, not worthy of any compassion and any consideration? How often do we feel absolute contempt for our personal enemies.
One of the great lessons of the Torah is the humanity even of our bitter enemy. “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him.” (Exodus 23:4) If we find the lost wallet of our enemy, we our obligated to return it, with all the credit cards and cash intact. Our enemy is still a human being. That is why a famous Talmudic passage teaches that God told the angels when the Egyptians drowning in the sea, “My children are drowning and you sing songs to me!”
The first approach to our enemy is to make peace, find reconciliation, come forward with gifts. Avot de Rabbi Natan teaches, “Who is strong? Whoever makes an enemy into a friend.” Having said that, we are not to be a shmattah (Yiddish for dish rag). We do not need to be walked upon. “Turn the other cheek” is not a Jewish value. As much as we want peace, sometimes we have to prepare for war.
The prophet Jeremiah said it so well, “Peace, peace, but there is not peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14) That seems to be the current stand of the Palestinians. No matter how many concessions or how many gifts Israel gives, their enemy does not seem to want to make peace. Sometimes no matter what we do, the other side wants to maintain a state of war.
The Talmud teaches, “If someone comes to slay you, rise up and slay them.” We have a right of self-defense. Often there is no choice, we have to prepare ourselves for battle. However, even as we go to war, there is a hope that peace will prevail. “When you approach a city to fight against it, first proclaim peace unto it.” (Deuteronomy 20:10) War is sometimes necessary, but always a sad last resort. Even as we go to war, we remember the humanity of our enemy.
This brings us to Jacob’s third step, prayer. We pray for peace. As we say countless times in our daily prayer book, “May He Who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us and all Israel, and let us say amen.” We ought to add, May He make peace for all humanity.
We pray, not because prayer is a panacea. God is not some giant vending machine; if we put in the right change the right result comes out. Rather, we pray to keep from being cynical, and developing a heart filled with hatred and enmity. We pray to maintain the vision that a day of peace will come, that our enemy will become our friend, that “nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH
(5760)

THE RAPE OF DINAH

“Now Dinah the daughter of Leah who was born to Jacob went out to visit the daughters of the land.”
(Genesis 34:1)

The woman who called me, although not a member of my synagogue, was extremely upset and seeking my advice. Her almost seventeen year old daughter had run away. She had encountered difficulties in school for a long time and had recently dropped out. Now the girl had left home. The mother discovered that her daughter had moved in with her boy friend and his family. And she was pregnant.
I questioned the woman and found out some more information about her daughter. We discussed various strategies on how to deal with her. Then I asked a question, although I already sensed what the answer would be. “Is the girl’s father involved?” The woman answered, “My husband left us when our daughter was very young. She has been raised without a father.”
Certainly not every daughter raised by a single mom drops out of school, runs away, and becomes pregnant. And plenty of young ladies get into trouble who are raised by two active, involved parents. Nonetheless, my experience in the rabbinate has taught me that fathers have a profound influence, particularly on daughters. Too often, without a daddy to love her and guide her, she seeks male affection in the wrong place.
We see this scenario clearly played out in this week’s Torah reading. Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and Leah, went out among the Canaanite daughters of the land. Schem the son of Hamor seduced (or raped) her, and then wanted to marry her. Who is the bad guy in this story? On the surface it appears to be Schem, whose lack of self-control around Dinah led to the slaughter of all the men of his community. A careful look at the Hebrew places responsibility closer to home.
The rabbinic commentators put some blame on Dinah herself. Rashi said that she was a yatzanit a girl who went out in an inappropriate way. Today we would say that she was the kind of girl who stayed out late, hung out in clubs, partied, lived in the fast lane, dressed provocatively, did not behave like a nice Jewish girl. That certainly does not excuse Schem’s behavior, but it does imply that Dinah displayed her own lack of self-control that led to these events.
Why was Dinah this kind of girl? The Torah gives a hint. “Now Dinah the daughter of Leah who was born to Jacob went out to visit the daughters of the land.” (Genesis 34:1) Note that it says Dinah the daughter of Leah who was born to Jacob, rather than the more customary usage Dinah the daughter of Jacob. Dinah was raised by her mother. Jacob is merely identified as the sperm donor; he was not an ongoing presence in his daughter’s life.
The story of Dinah is a story about fathering, particularly the fathering of a daughter. Fatherhood does take on a particular importance when raising daughters. A little girl learns to love a man by first learning to love her daddy. If he has been a constant presence in her life, as an adult she will hopefully transfer that love to a man in a mature relationship. Without a daddy’s presence, too many young ladies like Dinah, like the almost seventeen year old girl I spoke of, seek male affection in premature, inappropriate relationships.