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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Once, at the time of the wheat harvest, Reuben came upon some mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” (Genesis 30:14)
There is a moving story in the middle of this week’s portion. Leah’s oldest son Reuben picks some mandrakes, a plant known for its medicinal properties. Rachel, still childless, wants the mandrakes. Leah agrees to trade the plants for a night with Jacob in her tent. That night Leah becomes pregnant with her fifth son. The Rabbis were not sure exactly what mandrakes are; at least one Talmudic argument says they are a form of violets. (Sanhedrin 99b) But they must have some mysterious property; shortly afterwards Rachel becomes pregnant with Joseph.
Mandrakes have a long history as a plant with magical properties. Numerous superstitions surround the plant, and often women accused of witchcraft were thought to use mandrakes. There is a tradition that the plant screams when it is picked, and the screams can be deadly. Mandrakes played a major role in Harry Potter’s schooling at Hogwarts, where they overcame the spell of the monster in the chamber of secrets. This points to an idea still prevalent today, that medicines are magic potions and must be used with great care.
The Torah warns against the use of magic. One need only watch Paul Dukos’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, so wonderfully portrayed in Disney’s Fantasia. Mickey Mouse is the apprentice who uses magic to teach a broom to carry water. But he cannot control the magic, and soon the broom has multiplied, and water has flooded the room. Magic is hard to control and dangerous.
This idea is not some ancient superstition. In Brooklyn, among the ultra-Orthodox community, there has been a severe outbreak of measles. Many refuse to vaccinate their children. Leaders of the anti-vaccine movement have held meetings with leaders of the Orthodox community to express the dangers of vaccinations. With vaccines finally being developed for COVID-19, there is already a large backlash by those in the anti-vaccine community. I have received emails telling me that vaccines are a ploy by big pharmaceutical companies to gain huge profits. These people claim that like The Sorcerers Apprentice, vaccination is medication out of control and dangerous. I am positive that a huge percentage of people, including many Orthodox Jews, will refuse an anti-COVID vaccine.
In truth, vaccines are not magic. They are medicine. They are established using research by the best of modern science. Vaccines work by stimulating the body to develop antibodies, which kill off viruses or other invaders. Since Edward Jenner discovered in 1796 that those infected with a minor disease, cowpox, were immune from being infected with smallpox, vaccines are a major weapon in the fight against disease. Today smallpox has been wiped off the globe. Vaccines are a proven scientific method to fight disease. That is the reason why rabbis across the religious spectrum from Chabad to Reform have spoken out in favor of vaccine.
I still hear from people who tell me that vaccines are interfering with nature, are dangerous, and in the end will be destructive. They claim that nature has a way to stop disease – herd immunity. Let enough people get sick, develop immunity naturally, and the disease will stop on its own. Forget the vaccine and let nature take its course. There is some truth to this, but how many people will die in the meantime.
As I wrote in an earlier message, the anti-vaccine view is part of a back to nature movement, often led by the same people who are anti-circumcision. My usual answer is that our job as humans is not to worship nature but to transform nature. When people challenge me because I am pro-vaccine, I share a memory of when I was a child. Polio was an extreme threat, infecting and paralyzing children. I remember receiving that first Salk polio shot as a child. The shot hurt, but polio hurts much more.
A COVID vaccine is coming. When it becomes available to the masses – not an easy task during a time of government crisis – tens of thousands of lives will be saved. The vaccine is not magic like the ancient mandrake. It is science. I will be vaccinated as soon as it is available. And I will urge everyone else to do the same.


“It came to pass, when Laban heard the tidings of Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him, and kissed him, and brought him to his house.”  (Genesis 29:13)

Last week, building on the story of Jacob and Esau, I wrote about predestination.  In my synagogue this led to a wonderful discussion of fate (and a comparison with karma).  Are our lives predetermined?  Are we victims of our fate?  Or are we masters of our fate?  At the heart of this issue is the question of free will.  Do we have the will to make choices, or are we carried along by forces beyond our control?

In our discussion group after services, I raised a question for discussion.  Suppose a wealthy man is a drug addict.  He has the means to buy the drugs he needs, and he chooses to satisfy his habit.  Does such a man have free will?  Some would say that he has free will, since he freely chooses to buy the drugs.  Others would say that if he really had free will, he would choose to try to overcome his addiction.  Is it free will?  Philosopher Harry Frankfort speaks of “second order volition.”  It is desire about desire.  Volition is what we desire.  Second order volition is the desire to overcome that desire.  The desire to overcome addiction is a second order volition.  And when it comes to such second order volition, many addicts truly struggle.

Through the book of Genesis, we meet Laban, a man with an addiction problem.  He is addicted to money.  Laban is the sister of Rebecca, the uncle of Jacob, and the father of Rachel and Leah.  We first met him after the story of Rebecca at the well, when Abraham’s servant brings jewelry for Rebecca.  Laban immediately comes rushing over to join his sister, attracted by the wealth that Abraham’s servant brought.

In this week’s portion Laban meets his nephew and soon to be son-in-law Jacob.  The Torah teaches how Laban hugs and kisses his nephew.  Rashi brings the Midrash that he hugs Jacob to see if he had gold coins on his body and kisses him to see if there are offspring pearls in his teeth (Rashi on Genesis 29:13 based on Genesis Rabbah 70:13).  Then towards the end of the portion, Laban cleverly decides how to steal wages from his son-in-law Jacob.  He agrees to give Jacob the speckled and spotted sheep and goats that are born, and then knowing some genetics, hides those animals most likely to give birth to speckled and spotted offspring.  But Jacob, knowing some animal husbandry himself, outsmarts his father-in-law.  Even to the end, Laban tries to steal money from his son-in-law.

Laban is addicted to money.  He follows his will to do the wrong thing.  The question is, could Laban if he chooses to, overcome his will.  Could he become a more generous person, particularly towards the man who marries two of his daughters?  Does he have second order volition, the ability to override his own free will.  The deep question is, can a person with an addiction problem overcome his or her addiction?

One of the most powerful teachings of Jewish tradition is that we are not victims of our will.  We can overcome addictions.  It is hard, and the longer we are addicted, the harder it is to overcome that addiction.  The Midrash says that the evil inclination is like a spider web in the beginning, but eventually becomes like a heavy rope.  Tangled in a spider web, it is easy to get out.  But removing oneself from a heavy rope is much more difficult.  But the truth is that people overcome addiction all the time.  Often, they need twelve step and other recovery programs to help them.  But it is doable.

At the end of this portion Jacob flees from his avaricious father-in-law with his wives, maid servants, and grandchildren.  Imagine an alternative story where Laban had moved beyond selfishness and treated Jacob fairly.  Addictions, whether to money, sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling, or food, destroys families.  But tradition teaches that humans are not victims of their fate, and they are not victims of their addictions.  People can change.  They can have the will to change their will.  Unfortunately, right until the end Laban never changes his ways.  And so he becomes estranged from his own family.

“It came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him; and he went in to her.” (Genesis 29:23)
A central theme of the book of Genesis is brothers who do not get along. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, over and over we learn of brothers fighting. As I often summarize the book of Genesis, it begins with a brother killing his brother and ends with a brother forgiving his brothers. We can study brothers. But what about sisters?
There are two important sisters introduced in this week’s portion. Leah the older was the unloved but the fertile sister. Rachel the younger was the loved but the infertile sister. The image of the loved and the hated wives, the fertile and the infertile wives, is a central Biblical theme. Both sisters were married to Jacob. (Current Jewish law forbids marrying a sister in the other sister’s lifetime.) Jacob works seven years for his beloved Rachel, but his father-in-law tricks him and gives him the older sister Leah instead. The words remind Jacob of his own sins. “Around here the older comes before the younger.” Seven days later he marries Rachel, but he must work another seven years. Today at a Jewish wedding it is customary to perform a bedecken, where the groom lowers the veil over the bride. That way he knows he has the correct bride.
How did the two sisters get along? Let me share two wonderful midrashim (Rabbinic tales). In the first Rachel does a good deed for Leah. In the second Leah returns the favor and does a good deed for Rachel. Midrashim are often strange, but they teach profound insights.
In the first midrash, Rachel suspects that her father will give her older sister Leah to Jacob instead of her. She knows how sneaky her father is. She establishes a secret handshake with Jacob. She tells Jacob, do not go ahead with the marriage unless I give the secret handshake. But then she realizes how embarrassing it would be for Leah if she does not know the handshake. She is not willing to embarrass her sister publicly. So Rachel teaches Leah the secret handshake, Leah gives the secret handshake, and marries Jacob. Rachel refuses to allow her sister to be embarrassed, even if it costs her the marriage to her beloved.
Later in the portion Leah has given birth to six sons for Jacob. Each of the two handmaidens has given birth to two sons, ten all together. Leah knew through a prophecy that there would be twelve sons born to Jacob altogether, becoming the twelve tribes of Israel. Then both Leah and Rachel become pregnant at the same time. In the beginning, Leah was pregnant with Joseph and Rachel was pregnant with the daughter Dinah. Leah realizes how sad that Rachel would only have one son. So Leah prays to God.
Here is where a miracle happens. God exchanges the babies in the womb. Dinah moves into Leah’s womb and Joseph moves into Rachel’s womb. Rachel will give birth to Joseph and later Benjamin. Leah will give birth to Jacob’s only daughter Dinah. Anyone who thinks such an embryo transplant is impossible should know that today doctors do it all the time. Today it is a medical procedure. In Biblical times it was a miracle about a sister who felt compassion for a sister.
Brothers fight all the time in the Bible. But here we have two stories about sisters. In the first, Rachel acts with kindness towards her older sister Leah. In the second, Leah acts with kindness towards her younger sister Rachel. Sisters take care of sisters. And perhaps we men ought to learn from these two women. Brothers should take care of brothers. Or as the book of Psalms famously teaches, “Here is what is good and what is pleasant, for brothers [and sisters] to dwell together in unity” (Psalms 133:1).

“She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, this time I will thank the Lord. Therefore, she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing.” (Genesis 29:35)
Shakespeare put the famous words in the mouth of Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Perhaps to the lovers Romeo and Juliet names do not matter. But to the Hebrews, the people Israel, the Jewish people, names matter. That is why I am asked about Hebrew names more often than any other question.
We are a people that go by three different names. We were first called Hebrews, from the word Ivrim. The father of our people was known as Abraham the Hebrew – Avraham HaIvri. The word Ivri means Hebrew, but comes from the root avar, which means across. The Midrash teaches that our father Abraham was called the Hebrew because if everybody stood on one side, he stood on the other. To be a Hebrew, to be a Jew, is to be an iconoclast. It is to see the world differently than everyone else. In means not accepting the conventional wisdom. If everyone worshipped multiple gods, Abraham worshipped one God. If everyone looked out for their own self-interest, Abraham cared about the needs of others.
This idea of being on the other side, across the road, has marked Jews from the beginning. Why have so many Jews won Noble Prizes. far above our percentage of the population? Are Jews smarter? No, although there is certainly a Jewish emphasis on academics and study. But I believe Jews have historically seen the world differently than the bulk of humanity. Let me share one example, Albert Einstein. Einstein wrote that different observers will have different views of space and time. Time will slow down and space will contract, and given enough mass, space and time will even bend. Nobody thought of that before. Einstein may not have been the most religious Jew. But he was a Hebrew. Everybody else saw the world one way and he saw it another way.
Let’s look at a second word for the Jews, Israel -Yisrael. I am not talking about the country, I am talking about the people. But what does the name Yisrael mean? Here we go back to next week’s Torah portion. Jacob is about to be reunited with his brother Esau. He is very frightened. Last time they saw each other twenty years earlier, Esau had planned to kill him. Someone wrestled with him all night? Who? Was it God, or an angel, or perhaps his own conscience. In the end, the mysterious wrestler injures Jacob on the sciatic nerve. He blesses him and changes his name from Jacob to Israel “for you have wrestled with gods and men and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). The name Israel means “wrestles with God.”
We are a people who wrestle with God. We Jews are never satisfied with the world as it is, we are constantly struggling with God to make it a better world. It all began with Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah. It continued with Job calling God down to put him on trial. It continued into the Hasidic world with the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev who took two lists out of his pocket on Yom Kippur. He said, “God, the shorter list is my sins against you. The longer list is your sins against the Jewish people. God, if you forgive me, I will forgive you.” Only a Jew could come up with such a story. I like to compare our name to a brother religion, Islam. Islam means “submits to God,” the opposite of wrestling with God.
What about the third name for the Jewish people – Yehudim -Jews, from Judah the fourth son of Jacob and Leah? The word comes from the same Hebrew root as todah – thank you. Our very name means Thanksgiving. Our tradition teaches that we cannot enjoy anything of this world without first saying a blessing, giving thanks. Gratitude is a fundamental Jewish value. Our whole tradition, and our very name means we give thanks. How worthy that we read of the birth of Judah the weekend we celebrate Thanksgiving.

“Since the goats mated by the rods, the goats brought forth streaked, speckled, and spotted young.” (Genesis 30:39)
Sometimes there is a section of the Torah that has confused me for years, when suddenly I get an insight into its meaning. This week’s portion speaks about Jacob’s cleverness when it comes to animal husbandry. Jacob has been working for his father-in-law Laban, who is someone crooked when it comes to money. Laban promises Jacob he can get all the newborn speckled and spotted goats and sheep as his salary. Then Laban secretly hides all such goats and sheep, so that only all white ones are left. Anyone who knows something about genetics knows that when solid white goats and sheep mate, they will probably have solid white baby goats and sheep. Jacob was about to be cheated.
Jacob comes up with a clever trick. He takes poplar branches and made rods, and has the goats and sheep mate while looking at the rods. Somehow what the goats see while they are mating affects the genetic make-up of their offspring, and they are born speckled and spotted. Jacob knows a secret, that genes react to what the goats and sheep see. Later this same idea will appear in Rabbinic literature. Rabbi Yochanan was considered unusually handsome, the George Clooney of his day. The Talmud teaches that he would sit outside the mikvah in the evening so that women would look at him, conceive that night, and have handsome or beautiful babies (Baba Metzia 84a). Again, what someone sees before conceiving a newborn will affect the newborn.
To anyone who has studied modern biology, this sounds crazy. Genetics is a chemical process. Francis Crick, part of the team of Watson and Crick who discovered the double helix, has written about the Central Dogma of biology. DNA affects RNA which affects proteins. But proteins can never affect RNA to affect DNA. It is a one-way street, from inside out. It never goes from the outside in. What someone sees on the outside cannot affect their genome. We are the products of our genetics, pure chemicals, which are not affected by outside influences. How can something in the environment affect our genes? Jacob and the poplar branches, Rabbi Yochanan sitting at the mikvah, are silly stories from our past with no biological reality. Or are they?
Today there is a whole new area of biology called epigenetics. It teaches that things in the environment can have a direct effect on how the human genome works. Environmental influences including thoughts can turn on or turn off certain genes, changing the results. Scientists give numerous examples. Let me mention one. Scientists have studied the effects of babies conceived and born in the Netherlands during the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944 – 1945. Many babies born during this period were much slighter and smaller boned. (The actress Audrey Hepburn was a teen in Holland during this period; perhaps the famine was responsible for her delicate look that was so appealing.) Scientists have discovered that when many of these babies grew up and had children of their own, the new generation was also affected. The famine that winter influenced genetics for multiple generations.
Why am I interested in this? Because we live in an age that teaches a mechanistic view of everything. “My genes made me do it.” If Shakespeare had lived today, he would have had Cassius say, “The fault dear Brutus is not in ourselves, but in our genes.” We sense that our genes control everything. But now we are saying something radically new. What happens in our environment can affect our genes. I am not saying that if goats breed in front of poplar branches, they will come out speckled and spotted. I am saying that if goats breed in a certain environment, perhaps in a place without tension or suffering, perhaps the babies will come out stronger and healthier.
I am not a biologist, but I do sense that the Central Dogma of biology is partially wrong. How can the environment affect our genes? Let me hint at an idea suggested by a few scientists and philosophers willing to entertain a radical idea. Perhaps our genes have a low level of consciousness that makes them aware of their environment. Perhaps we can speak of consciousness not as a higher-level phenomenon but something present in all material things including organic chemicals. The name for this idea is panpsychism. It sounds crazy, but in the history of science, sometimes crazy ideas turn out to be true.

“He dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:12)
Like most of the world, I was shocked by the horrific events in Paris last Friday night. Although it was Shabbat, I was glued to the television set. I did look on Facebook to see a colleague of mine, Rabbi Tom Cohen, who serves a congregation in Paris, say that he and his family were okay. He also apologized for going online on Shabbat, but he needed to express his shock and his sadness.
A memory came back to me. It was the summer of 2001, a few months before 9/11. I had flown on Air France to Israel, during the beginning of the terror attacks in Israel known as the second intifada. Air France called me that their crews would no longer spend the night in Israel. They would fly into Tel Aviv in the morning, fly out in the afternoon. I could take my flight back on Air France, but I would have to spend the night in Paris at my own expense. I said that I could live with that.
When I arrived in Paris I arranged to meet with Rabbi Cohen and take a walking tour of Jewish Paris. But first he warned me, “It is not safe to wear a yarmulke in this city.” I took the yarmulke off. Jews are often the first victims of hatred and terrorism, but they are never the last. I saw where terrorists had shot up a kosher restaurant several years before, killing a number of people. Of course, I also saw the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. I even bought my wife Parisian perfume. Paris is a glorious city but sadly a city where there is palatable hatred.
I returned home and visited New York, including a trip to the top of the World Trade Center with my younger son. Two months later the Twin Towers were gone. Hatred and terrorism was not limited to Israel nor Jews. It is almost as if the Jews are the canaries in the mine, brought in to see if there is poisonous gas. Jews are the first victims but they are never the last. In Paris last January it was a kosher supermarket and a satirical magazine. Now it was all Parisians of all faiths – Christians, Moslems, and Jews. The Isis gunmen did not discriminate.
A radical evil Islam is on the rise. Isis is only the most powerful manifestation. Isis seeks to reestablish the ancient Caliphate, building a nation under Sharia law similar to that built by Mohammed in Medina. Scholars have differentiated between Mecca Moslems and Medina Moslems. Mecca Moslems are the vast majority, practicing their faith while letting others practice their various religions. To Mecca Moslems, Christianity and Judaism were religions of the Book, worthy of respect. Judaism flourished under Moslem rule in Medieval Spain. On the other hand, Medina Moslems are those who followed Muhammed’s path when he conquered Medina. The infidel must either be converted or killed. There are the people who beheaded Western journalists, blew up a Shiite mosque (a heretical form of Islam), bombed a Russian plane in the air, and murdered indiscriminately in Paris last week.
One could say that these Medina Moslems, these radical Islamists are a tiny minority. That is true, but even if they are 1% of the Moslems of the world, that is over ten million people. The fight against radical Islam will be protracted and difficult.
Is there hope? This morning I heard a commentator on the radio say that radical Islam is on the way up. It reminded me of a Midrash based on the scene from this week’s portion where Jacob has a dream. He sees a ladder reaching to heaven, with angels going up and down. Should not angels be going down and up? The Midrash sees the angels as symbols of the great powers throughout world history. These powers, no matter how evil, go up but then eventually come down. The Babylonians went up and came down. The Persians went up and came down. The Greeks went up and came down. When the Midrash was written the Romans, who cruelly destroyed the Jewish Temple, were on the way up. The Midrash was symbolically declaring that even the mighty Romans will come down. And sure enough they Roman empire fell apart.
Since the days of the Midrash, many other evil powers have gone up and come down. Whether the Crusaders, Nazi Germany, or Communist Russia, those who would be cruel were eventually destroyed. And we must have faith that the Islamist radicals, the jihadists of Isis and Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, will also come down. We must fight evil with all our power. But we must also pray for the day forecast by King David in the Psalms, “Let the sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Hallelujah!” (Psalms 104:35)

“She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, This time I will thank the Lord. Therefore she named him Judah.” (Genesis 29:35)
Let me begin with a story that appeared in my book The Ten Journeys of Life. A husband and wife went to a fine restaurant to celebrate their anniversary. The meal was delicious, and when it was over, the couple thanked the waiter profusely for bringing them such a delicious dinner.
The waiter replied, “Why do you thank me? I only brought you food that was prepared in our kitchen. Why don’t you go back there and thank the chef?”
The couple went back to the kitchen to thank the chef for the meal, and he replied, “I appreciate you kind words, but why thank me? I simply combine and cook the many quality ingredients that our supplier brings me. Here is the company that supplies most of our products. Why don’t you thank them?”
The couple went over to the supply company and thanked the truck driver. The truck driver replied, “Why thank me? I simply arrange transportation. It is the farmer who grows and produces the products that you eat. Why don’t you thank the farmer?”
The couple drove out to the nearby farm and thanked the farmer for the many fresh products supplied. The farmer replied, “Why thank me? I plant the field and harvest the crops. I milk the cows and raise the chickens. But there is a force greater than me who supplies the food.”
“Who is that?” The farmer looked up, and the couple understood to Whom they needed to give thanks. They realized that the waiter, the chef, the supplier, and the farmer are all partners, working with the Ultimate Provider. They turned their hearts and thanked God.
When this week’s portion falls during Thanksgiving weekend, it is worthy to speak about giving thanks. For this week we introduce the name of the Jewish people – Yehudim, from the name of Jacob’s fourth son Yehuda (Judah). Leah, the unloved wife, names the first four sons born to her and Jacob. The first is named Reuben from the Hebrew word “to see”; God will see her affliction. The second is named Simeon from a root meaning “to hear”; God will hear that she is unloved. The third is named Levi from a root meaning “to accompany”; God will convince her husband to accompany her. The first three children were given names that she hoped would convince her husband to love her. The names did not work.
Only with the fourth son does Leah change her purpose. She picked the name Judah which simply means “to thank” the Lord. There are no strings attached and no conditions. This baby has a name that simply means “thank you.” Of course, the tribe of Judah became the major surviving tribe, so that an entire people go by the name “Jews.” The Jews exist as a people whose purpose is to give thanks to God.
In America we are celebrating Thanksgiving this weekend. It is a day of giving thanks. We understand that we live in a universe fine tuned for us to receive what we need to survive and flourish. Life is filled with gifts. Certainly life is not perfect, and sometimes it is easy to scream at the universe and cry out, “Why, God?” But sometimes we need to simply stop and say thanks for whatever bounties we have been privileged to share. We need to say thanks for family and friends, for the food we eat and the clothes we wear and the roof over our heads, for the simple fact that we are alive and breathing. May we all be imbued with a spirit of appreciation.

“And it came to pass, when Laban heard the tidings of Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him, and kissed him, and brought him to his house.” (Genesis 29:13)
There is an old joke that bears retelling now and again. I first heard it attributed to the playwright George Bernard Shaw. A man at a party asks a very elegant woman, “Will you sleep with me for a million dollars?” The woman agrees. Then the man asks, “Will you sleep with me for a hundred dollars.” The woman is horrified. “What kind of woman do you think I am?” The man replies, “We have already established that. Now we are haggling over price.”
I thought of that story during one of my college classes I teach in ethics. I had offered a scenario to the class. “You witness a bank robbery from the street. The robbers run out and drop a large bag of money. Nobody is looking; there are no security cameras. You pick up the money without being seen. Do you keep it or do you return it to the bank?” Several members of the class answered with brutal honesty. “It demands how much money there was.” I was intrigued that for the right price, students would leave their ethics at the door.
There is a popular saying that “Everybody has their price.” We may be born with a conscience and a sense of right and wrong. But how much money would it take for us to turn our conscience off and do what we know is wrong. There is a reason why the Torah teaches many times not to take a bribe. “A bribe blinds the eyes of the wise.” (Deuteronomy 16:19) Money is not the root of all evil, but it does have the potential of leading us astray.
Jewish tradition teaches that we are all born with a good inclination and an evil inclination. We all have some area in our lives where the evil inclination is particularly strong. I enjoy looking at various Biblical characters and asking where they struggled with their evil inclination. The list is long – Esau’s appetite for food, Noah’s desire to drink, Moses’ anger, Pharaoh’s pride, and King David’s sexual drive. What about greed, the appetite to acquire money in an improper way. Perhaps the best example from the Bible of greed is Rebecca’s brother and Rachel and Leah’s father Laban. We already met Laban a few weeks ago when his eyes lit up seeing the jewelry given to his sister Rebecca when she was promised as a wife to Isaac. Now he returns as a major character in the story.
In this week’s portion Laban’s nephew Jacob travels to the family birthplace. The Torah says that Laban runs to hug and kiss Jacob. Rashi quotes the Midrash. Laban hugs him to feel if he had money hidden on his body; he kisses him to see if he had pearls hidden in his teeth. Laban sees Jacob as a source of wealth. He works him for seven years in exchange for his daughter Rachel, and then marries him to his older daughter Leah. If he wants to marry his beloved Rachel, he will have to work another seven years. Then Jacob works additional years to begin to build up some wealth of his own.
Laban’s true personality comes out in a complicated section about speckled and spotted sheep and goats. Laban promises Jacob such marked goats. But Laban understands genetics at some simple level; he hides the speckled and spotted sheep and goats who are most likely to give birth to similar animals. Laban is clever but Jacob is more clever, and becomes an expert animal breeder. In the end Jacob flees from his father-in-law, complaining that Laban was constantly changing his wages. For Laban, money was more important than family.
Laban is not the only Biblical character with a weakness for wealth. One thinks of Balaam in the book of Numbers, who is prepared to curse the Israelites for a financial reward. But Laban is certainly the most egregious example of a man who could not control is appetite for wealth. In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko said, “Greed is good.” I suppose Laban would have been a hero to Gekko, if he ever took the time to read his Bible.
Greed is not good. It is not true that “everybody has a price.” Let us raise children who do what is right and avoid what is wrong, whatever the price.

“[Laban said to Jacob,] now therefore come, let us make a covenant, you and me; and let it be for a witness between me and you.” (Genesis 31:44)
I once met a man with a sign on his desk, “Friends may come and friends may go, but enemies accumulate.” The saying reminds me of Jacob, who seems to accumulate enemies throughout his life. He flees with his family in the middle of the night in fear of his father-in-law Laban. Then in next week’s portion, he confronts his brother Esau who had tried to kill him twenty years earlier. Stuck between Laban to the east and Esau to the west, Jacob must have literally felt he was between a rock and a hard place.
In the end, Laban and Jacob set up a truce, make a covenant, and dedicate a pillar as a sign of that covenant. Next week Jacob will make peace, although a rather cold peace, with his brother Esau. But perhaps this week is a perfect time to speak about dealing with our enemies.
As I write these words, the air war continues between Israel and Hamas ruled Gaza. Egypt, no friend of Israel, is trying to broker a truce. Currently Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after visiting Israel and the Palestinians (but not Gaza), is in Egypt trying also to broker a truce. Those of us pained by the loss of life on both side can only hope that Israel and Hamas will reach some kind of cease fire. Meanwhile, the rockets continue to fly and much of southern Israel is living in bomb shelters. How do we deal with an enemy who targets missiles at innocent civilians?
First, a person or a nation has the right to defend itself against his or her enemies. The Talmud teaches, “If one comes to kill you, rise up and kill them.” (Berachot 58a) There is no teaching in my tradition of “turn the other cheek.” Self defense is a fundamental human right. (For those who remember our former education director Mordecai Kaspi-Silverman of blessed memory, he used to wear a chain around his neck with the Hebrew saying “if one comes to kill you, rise up and kill them.” He literally wore his politics not on his sleeve but around his neck.)
Most everybody believes that Israel has the right to self-defense against missile attacks. But a number of people have expressed to me their opinion that Israel ought to go farther. “Israel should go into Gaza and flatten it. Wipe them out.” There are many political and diplomatic reasons why Israel has not taken harsher action. But the most fundamental is the clear understanding that even our enemies are God’s children. The Talmud has God reprimanding the angels for singing praises of God at the crossing of the sea. (Megillah 10b) “My children are drowning and you sing praises.” The ancient Egyptians are God’s children, as are the people of Gaza including Hamas. Based on this teaching, Golda Meir famously said, “I can forgive the Arabs for killing our children; I cannot forgive the Arabs for turning our children into killers.”
The initial goal is to come to some kind of cease fire or truce with our enemy. It does not mean becoming friends or even agreeing to a solution to the conflict. It means stopping all behavior which harms the other side. When we face an enemy, if both sides can agree on some kind of truce, it is an important first step. Often it takes the intervention of an outside third party to help us negotiate such a truce. But of course, after such a truce further negotiations may be necessary. One of the most valuable things I have done as a rabbi is to take an intensive five day course in mediation. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned in mediating a conflict was to search for something that both sides can agree on. Even enemies have common interests.
In the end the goal is not an armistice nor a peace treaty. It is something far deeper and more difficult to achieve. Avot de Rabbi Natan teaches, “Who is strong? One who turns an enemy into a friend.” (Avot de Rabbi Natan 23:1) History is filled with bitter enemies who became allies; think about the United States and Japan. Perhaps one day Israel and its neighbors in Gaza will become such friends. It is hard to imagine. But as Theodore Herzl famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”


“And he [Jacob] dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:12)
Jacob, while fleeing from his brother to Padan-Aram, lies down to sleep with his head on a rock. There he has a profound dream. There is a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels going up and down the ladder. Jacob awakes and proclaims, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” He calls the place Beth El – The House of God. Situated on the border to the Holy Land, Beth El becomes a sacred place for the people Israel.
The Rabbis later asked the question, why were the angels going up and down the ladder? If angels begin in heaven, should they not go down and up? They give various answers. My favorite Rabbinic interpretation is that these were the angels of the place who accompanied Jacob on his journey. When he reached the border, the angels from the place he was leaving could go back up to heaven. New angels then came down to accompany Jacob to his new place. Every place has its own angels.
Today there is great interest in angels. From movies like Angels in the Outfield to television shows like Touched by an Angel, these spiritual beings have become part of our popular culture. The Broadway play and movie Mama Mia, based on the wonderful music of Abba, ends with the song I had a Dream. One of the key lyrics is “I believe in angels.” The spirituality section of any bookstore is filled with books about angels. Do angels really exist?
Jewish tradition is also filled with angels. The Rabbis teach that God consulted with the angels before deciding to create humanity. Traditional Jews say a prayer each evening before they go to bed asking protection from the angels. “In the name of the Lord the Eternal God of Israel, Michael is on my right, Gabriel is on my left, Uriel is before me, Rafael is behind me, and above my head is God’s holy presence.” Who would not feel comfort with such an honor guard?
Perhaps we can define angels not as beings flapping their wings and playing harps, but rather as spiritual presences. Every place has its own spiritual presence one can feel. I love the idea that every place has its own spiritual reality. Our synagogue just moved from one building to another. A number of members have told me that they feel a different spiritual presence in the new building. “I love where we moved but it feels different.” Or “I hate the fact that we moved; it feels so different.”
Recently I moved my daughter from Florida to her new home in Maryland. It is always painful when a child moves farther from home, even when we know it was a good move for her. I love the idea that there is a spiritual presence that protected her in Florida, and a different one that protects her in Maryland. One band of angels goes up the ladder and another comes down. Do such angels really exist? A couple I know called me and mentioned they were visiting Maryland. I told them my daughter just moved there. They offered to call her and invite her to dinner, an act of kindness that brought her great comfort. There really are angels.
Does every place have its own angels – its own spiritual presence? Let me share a personal story. Many years ago when I was in college, I spent a year studying in Israel. On a vacation, I went to visit Athens, Greece. In a youth hostel I met a man and we decided to go exploring together. As we wondered up to the Acropolis and stopped in a café for a drink, I shared with him my thoughts about whether to go to Rabbinical school. I do not know the man’s name, and I doubt he was of the Jewish faith. But a conversation with a total stranger helped me in my decision to go to the seminary. Even Greece has its angels.
I believe that beyond this physical, material world there is a spiritual reality. That spiritual can touch us in profound ways, wherever we happen to be. I am convinced that every place has its own angels.



“She conceived again and bore a son and declared, this time I will praise the Lord. Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing.” (Genesis 29:35)

The woman said to me, “Doesn’t it bother you to be called a Jew?” She was utterly oblivious to the anti-Semitism of her question. To her, “Jew” was a pejorative term. To me, it was a compliment. I am proud to be a Jew. It is a name for my people that stretches back to antiquity, to this week’s portion.
Leah gave birth to her first four sons from her husband Jacob. The first three – Reuben, Simeon, and Levi – were given names with the hope that these sons would make her beloved by her husband. Reuben comes from the Hebrew root “to see” – “perhaps my husband will see my affliction and love me.” Simeon come from the Hebrew root “to hear” – perhaps my husband will hear my pain and love me.” Levi comes from the Hebrew root “to attach” – “perhaps my husband will become attached to me.” Each was given a name with an ulterior motive.
Not so the fourth son. He was simply called Judah, Yehuda, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning “thank you.” With her fourth son Leah simply expressed her gratitude for the baby. There was something unique among the brothers about Judah. He went on to become a leader. The southern kingdom of the Israelite peoples became known as Judah; it would be the kingdom that would survive. We Jews are descendents of the people of that kingdom. We are a people whose name means “thank you.” To be a Jew is to live a life of gratitude for the gifts that God has given us. Or as I wrote in my book The Ten Journeys of Life, “spirituality begins with gratitude.”
In my book I began my chapter on spirituality with a wonderful story. “A husband and wife went to a fine restaurant to celebrate their anniversary. The meal was delicious, and when it was over, the couple thanked the waiter profusely for bringing them such a delicious dinner.
“The waiter replied, ‘Why do you thank me? I only brought you food that was prepared in our kitchen. Why don’t you go back there and thank the chef?’
“The couple went back to the kitchen to thank the chef for the meal, and he replied, ‘I appreciate your kind words, but why thank me? I simply combine and cook the many quality ingredients that our supplier brings me. Here is the company that supplies most of our products. Why don’t you thank them?’
“The couple went over to the supply company and thanked the truck driver. The truck driver replied, ‘Why thank me? I simply arrange transportation. It is the farmer who grows and produces the products that you eat. Why don’t you thank the farmer?’
“The couple drove out to the nearby farm and thanked the farmer for the many fresh products. The farmer replied, ‘Why thank me? I plant the field and harvest the crops. I milk the cows and raise the chickens. But there is a force greater than me who supplies the food.’
“’Who is that?’ The farmer looked up, and the couple understood to Whom they needed to give their thanks. They realized that the waiter, the chef, the supplier and the farmer are all partners, working with the Ultimate Provider. They turned their hearts and thanked God.”
It is happenstance that the Torah reading where Judah gets his name falls on the weekend that Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. But perhaps this is the perfect time to turn to the universe and express gratitude. We are a people whose very name means thank you. Let us take the time to say thank you for whatever gifts the universe has bestowed upon us.



“He had a dream, a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.” (Genesis 28:12)

Angels frame this entire portion. At the beginning of the portion, as Jacob is fleeing from his brother with nothing but the staff in his hand, he has a dream of a stairway with angels going up and down. At the end of the portion, as Jacob is returning with a huge family and a great deal of wealth, angels of God encounter him. One senses that angels blessed Jacob throughout life’s transient moments.
There is a great interest in angels today. A few years ago the television show Touched by an Angel was a big hit. Of course there have been constant novels and movies about angels, from Dickens A Christmas Carol to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Abba in their hit song I Dreamed a Dream sing the lyrics, “I believe in angels.” That lyric became part of the hit musical and movie based on their songs Mama Mia. In our media culture angels seem to be everywhere.
Angels are also a central part of Jewish thought. There is a tradition that Jews say a series of prayers upon lying down in bed each evening. Among those prayers is the beautiful thought: “Michael is at my right hand, Gabriel is at my left hand, Uriel is before me, Refael is behind me, and above my head is the indwelling of God.” Of course Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Refael are the most well-known angels in the Jewish hierarchy.
Each Friday night Jews welcome the Sabbath with the song Shalom Aleichem. The lyrics literally mean, “Peace be with you, O ministering angels.” According to the Talmud two angels follow every Jew home and Friday night, a good angel and a bad angel. If the candles are lit, there is Sabbath wine, and the table is set for a delicious meal, the good angel says, “May it be like this every week” and the bad angel is forced to say “Amen.” If Friday night is not special but is the same as every other evening, the bad angel says, “May it be like this every week” and the good angel is forced to say “Amen.”
My favorite angel tradition in Judaism comes from the Talmud. I spoke of it in my book The Kabbalah of Love. Here is a quote from that book: “When a soul is in the womb it is visited by an angel. Every soul has its own personal guardian angel. The angel spends the time in the womb teaching the soul the entire Torah, the teachings it needs to succeed in the world of space and time. Our soul had a briefing. It learned all about its mission and what it would need to survive and to thrive, to succeed in this world of space and time. The rabbis say it is as if a light illuminates the earth from one end of the world to the other.
“When the soul is ready to be born into the world the angel says, ‘Go out there, do your mission, and be good.’ The angel then touches the soul on the space above the upper lip causing a small indentation. The soul forgets everything it had learned, at least it consciously forgets. And so the soul enters the world of space and time. The soul is born innocent, with no knowl-edge. But somewhere deep in the recesses of the soul, in the unconscious, there lingers the memory of the angel and the teachings.”
So, are there really angels? Many science-oriented people would probably scoff at the very idea. But those same scientists would say of course there are really quarks although no one has ever seen one. Of course there is really dark matter although we have no way to measure it. String theorists would say, of course there are minute vibrating strings that make up all of matter and energy, although no one has ever seen one. We accept these scientific ideas because they help us make sense of the material world.
Our religion teaches that there is a reality beyond the material world; there is a spiritual dimension. God and the human soul all exist within this spiritual dimension. Why should there not also be minds within that spiritual world, minds that interact with us humans? Perhaps these are the angels we speak about. Just as quarks help us make sense of the material world, perhaps these angels help us make sense of the spiritual world in which we are embedded.


“When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said to Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.” (Genesis 30:1)

Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, suffered from infertility. She was in such pain that she cried out to God, “Give me children or else I die.” From this, the Rabbis of the Talmud learned that to be without children is a kind of a death. In fact, whenever our bodies do not work in the way that they were designed it is a kind of a death.
We go through life expecting that our bodies will function the way God designed them. For most of us, at some time in our lives, something goes wrong. We deal with pain, illness, suffering, perhaps a serious disease or a chronic condition. It is a kind of death. But like any death, there is a limit to mourning. And there can be healing in the end. By healing I do not necessarily mean a cure. Healing is more an attitude, a way of making our peace and learning to live with a body that does not work the way we expect.
My wife Evelyn and I went through the emotions of a kind of death followed by healing many years ago when we suffered through infertility and built a family through adoption. For the past several months we have been going through a difficult time again. This time Evelyn has been coping with an unexplained illness. This includes chronic pain on her right side, swelling in her knee, and a loss of balance that has caused her to fall a few times. We have run to various doctors and two visits to the emergency room. So far her primary physician believes the issue is treatable and not permanent. There are more doctors to see and we are waiting for test results..
The emotions are what one would expect when the body disappoints us. Questions of why mingle with anger, fear, and frustration. Doctors have been kind but doctors’ offices are not always pleasant places to spend time, and hours in hospital emergency rooms can be exhausting. We understand why the rabbis see this kind of suffering as a kind of death. We are mourning a body that does not work properly. At the same time we are well aware that we are relatively blessed; others have it far worse. We have a supportive family and community and a great deal of hope that healing will come soon.
Luckily, Evelyn’s disability is not constant and she is able to go about her business. Recently, quite unexpectedly she bought herself a new car. She had been driving a tiny little car we had bought a number of years ago for our daughter Aliza. Evelyn realized that some of her pain was caused by manipulating in and out of that tiny front seat. So I received a surprising message from my wife, “I am at the car dealer buying a bigger car.” She proudly drove home with her new Mitsubishi and it seemed to lift her spirits, until the pain came back a few hours later.
The next day she showed the new car to a friend of ours, a young healthy woman we know. The young woman was immediately envious. “I wish I could afford a car like that.” Evelyn responded with words I believe we have all felt. “I will make you a deal. I will trade you my new car for your good health.” And she meant those words. There is no greater gift than a body that works properly.
I know Evelyn and I will find some healing. We of ten think about the beautiful twenty-third Psalm, “Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” The key words there are that we “walk through.” We will come out the other end. And like Rachel in the Bible who was eventually blessed with two children, we will come out stronger. The great Biblical faiths Judaism and Christianity teach that out of death comes rebirth. For all those readers out there who are ill, may God grant you healing.



“Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, Surely God is present in this place and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16)

There is a great public debate today about intelligent design and evolution. Is intelligent design a way to sneak religion into science classes in the public schools? Is it creationism in disguise? Or is it a legitimate scientific option that ought to be taught side by side with Darwin’s theory of evolution? I have very strong thoughts on this issue – thoughts that may surprise people on both sides.
What is intelligent design? Darwin taught that all forms of life developed gradually over the eons through tiny changes and natural selection; those changes most conducive to survival flourished as those individuals had offspring. Intelligent design questions this idea. Certain bodily organs are “irreducibly complex.” For example, the pieces of the eye are so complicated and work together so well, that there is no way an eye could evolve from more primitive forms. Unless there was an intelligent designer behind it, tiny changes could never form an eye. (One of the best accounts of intelligent design is Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box. He wrote, “An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly by numerous, successive, slight modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.”)
Intelligent Design is a powerful idea that goes far beyond mere creationism. It is not Christianity in disguise; intelligent design theorists are not saying the first chapter of Genesis is true. They are simply saying that evolution as it has traditionally been understood cannot explain irreducibly complex phenomena. There must be a designer; we can give that designer whatever name we wish – God, the Force, the Spirit of the Universe, Ein Sof. I believe what they are saying is correct; the universe was designed. But I also believe that it is not science, and does not belong in a science textbook.
To be science, a theory has to be falsifiable. (This is based on the work of philosopher of science Karl Popper.) It must be possible to conceive an experiment that would prove the theory false. (For example, we all know gravity is true. If I could find a way to get a stone to float in the air and not fall to earth, it would falsify the laws of gravity. We would have to come up with some new law.) Here is the problem – how do you falsify intelligent design? If you could come up with a more primitive eye that might have evolved into our modern eye, intelligent design advocates would simply find some other example of an irreducibly complex organ.
Now we get to the heart of my argument. Intelligent Design may be true, but it is not science. As a religious Jew, I understand that not all truth comes from science. There are many phenomena in the universe which are true but beyond the realm of science – God, love, courage, meaning, ethics, beauty, etc.
Is evolution true? I believe the way many scientists teach Darwin also goes beyond science. It is one thing to teach that gradual changes happened over millennia resulting in all forms of life. It is quite another to say that such changes are random, material processes, and the presence of all life forms including humans is no more than a random roll of the dice. (For an example, see Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker for such an approach.) It a science textbook teaches that we are here by random chance, living in a cold, unfeeling cosmos, it is going beyond the realm of science and entering the realm of philosophy.
Evolution and natural selection explain the variety of life on earth and are valid scientific arguments. They should be taught. Intelligent Design on one hand, and blind materialism on the other hand, are philosophies rather than science. They should be taught as philosophy or as religion, but neither should be taught as science.
If evolution is true, where is God? In this week’s portion, Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching from a rock to the heavens, with angels going up and down. He exclaims, “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know it.” Like Jacob, we see a natural process like evolution leading to a variety of life on earth. We step back and suddenly realize, this is the hand of God. It is not a question of science; it is a question of faith. Science is important. But there are some questions that science can never answer. That is why we turn to religion.



“Jacob loved Rachel, so he answered, I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
(Genesis 29:18)

We live in a culture that idealizes romantic love. Our popular music, our movies, our television shows, are built around the dream that we will fall madly in love. In any bookstore there is a huge section of fiction called Romance, which tell the story of Prince Charming rescuing Cinderella and living happily ever after. We all dream of the day when, to quote the famous words of Oscar Hammerstein, “Some Enchanted Evening, You will see a stranger, across a crowded room. Then fly to her side and make her your own, or all through your life you will dream on alone.”
Note the use of the phrase “fall in love.” The very term implies something that happens to us, something over which we have no control, a force that grabs us like gravity and causes us to lose restraint. Over and over I have a certain conversation with our young people. I speak to them about the kind of person I want them to marry. And they answer, “Rabbi, how do I know whom I will fall in love with?” It is as if love is a random force that grabs us unexpectedly and brings us face to face with our beloved. We either grab the moment, or spend the rest of our lives alone.
The dream is nice, but is that how the world really works? This week’s portion has the first example in the Torah of young people falling madly in love. Jacob spotted Rachel bringing her father’s sheep to the well. With a new found strength, he ran over and rolled a large rock off the well, and then kissed her. He agreed to work seven years for her father to receive her hand in marriage, years that seemed like a few days because of his love for her. Then, when his father gave him the older sister in marriage in her place, he had to work a second set of seven years. Jacob had fallen hopelessly, madly in love with the beautiful Rachel.
One would think that based on their deep love, they would have the perfect marriage. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Rachel complained bitterly about her infertility. “Give me children or else I will die.” (Genesis 30:1) Rather than embrace his wife lovingly, Jacob answered with insensitivity and anger. “Am I in God’s stead to give you children?” Jacob’s father Isaac had prayed across the room from his wife Rebecca when they were infertile, but there is no similar scene of Jacob and Rachel praying for each other. Later when Hannah wept at her infertility, her husband Elkanah embraced her, “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) There are no similar words of devotion by Jacob. He seemed annoyed at her infertility.
At end of his life, Jacob told his sons where to bury him. He asked to spend eternity not on the road outside Bethlehem next to his beloved Rachel. Rather, he wanted to be buried next to his first wife Leah, mother of his oldest children, in the Cave of Machpelah. Like his father and grandfather before him, his burial place reflects the eternity of his first marriage rather than the overwhelming romance of his second.
In our country we worship romantic love. I believe such a view of love is not healthy for our marriages nor for our family life. I have performed hundreds of weddings in my career. Two beautiful young people stand before me and commit themselves to one another. They are always so madly in love. And yet I know that a large percentage of these marriages will not succeed. Statisticians teach that 50% of couples will eventually divorce. I hope my percentage is better than this, but I know that, unlike the pop song, love will not necessarily keep us together.
Perhaps we need something more than romantic love. Perhaps it is not enough to fall in love with someone, before we really get to know the other person. Perhaps we must tell our young people that love is a decision that must be made slowly and carefully. Perhaps we need to emphasize that true love is not something out of our control, but something we can choose after serious consideration. Love is more than romance. If only our culture would learn this important lesson.



“And he [Laban] continued, Name the wages due from me and I will pay you.”
(Genesis 30:28)

In this week’s portion, Jacob quit his job. For twenty years he had served as a shepherd for his father-in-law Laban. He accused Laban of constantly changing his wages and other unfair labor practices. Ultimately, Jacob wanted to leave his father-in-law and return with his wives and children to his homeland.
Jacob had an economic value for his father-in-law. Most of us will leave a job when we believe we are not being paid our economic value in the open market. Frequently people who are struggling financially come to me for counseling. Such financial problems threaten their dignity, and sometimes they threaten their marriage. I will ask people about their jobs, and then discuss what they can do to increase their economic value in the workplace. Perhaps more education, learning new skills, taking on more responsibilities, moving into management, can help someone improve their economic value.
Recently we had to fire someone from employment here in the synagogue. It is particularly painful, because as a house of God, we are concerned about people’s feelings and their dignity. However, as an institution which must be fiscally responsible to its members, we have to look at the economic value each employee gives our organization. We sometimes must let someone go when their economic value is less than the cost of keeping them on staff. No organization can afford to keep people on staff who do not provide enough economic value.
Every human being has an economic value. What are they worth in the marketplace? According to the Talmud, it is the task of parents to teach their children a trade, so they grow up with a certain economic value in the marketplace. “R. Judah said, a father who does not teach his son a trade teaches him to be a thief.” (Kiddushin 29a) Often our self worth is directly linked to our economic worth. The more we see that we are worth in the marketplace, the better we feel about ourselves.
However, one of the most profound teachings of our tradition is that every human being has an intrinsic value, regardless of their economic value. This value has nothing to do with our job or our career. It is a value based on the fact that we are humans, created in God’s image. We have such a value whether we are working or unemployed, whether we are male or female, whether we are children or elderly, whether we are retired or disabled, whether we receive pay or not. Nobody can take away from that basic human value.
There is a story about a man who comes home from work each evening and reaches up onto the branches of a tree. He then walks into the house. Each morning he reaches up onto the tree again and then leaves for work. His neighbor finally asks him what he is doing with the tree each evening and morning. “When I come home each evenings I always feel such pressure and so many burdens from my job. Before I go into the house, I hang all these burdens on the tree. I then walk into the house not as a business person, but simply as a human being, as a husband, as a dad. In my home my worth has nothing to do with my business. Each morning when I go back to work, I take the burdens of my business back on my shoulder. But do you know what? In the morning they feel much lighter.”
We can lose our job but we cannot lose our dignity. We are permitted to fire someone, but we must do so in a way that maintains that person=s fundamental human dignity. That is the only way we can fire someone with love.



“She conceived again and bore a (fourth) son, and declared, This time I thank the Lord. Therefore she named him Judah.”
(Genesis 29:35)

Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah. Rachel was the beloved. But only Leah seemed to be blessed by children. She was the fertile but unloved wife.
Leah prayed that by having children she would finally win over her husband’s affections. She bore a first son and named him Reuben, based on the Hebrew phrase, “The Lord has seen my affliction, now my husband will love me.” She bore a second son and named him Simeon, based on the Hebrew phrase, “This is because the Lord heard that I was unloved.” She bore a third son and named him Levi based on the Hebrew phrase, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have born him three sons.”
Three times Leah had children for the purpose of winning her husband’s affections. And three times her husband did not respond. None of these three children, born to fulfill their mother’s needs, was to become a leader of the people Israel.
Then a fourth son was born. This one had no special task and no particular need to fulfill in his mother’s life. He was simply called Judah from the Hebrew word meaning “thank you.” This son was loved and appreciated for his own sake. His birth expressed gratitude. Judah went on to become a leader among his brothers. Today we are called Jews, continuing to carry on his name.
There are two reasons people have children. Some have children to fulfill a need within them. They may want the child to save their marriage. They may want a child to fulfill an unfinished dream, to be the football player or physician or astronaut they could never be. They may have children because they are lonely and unhappy, and in need of someone to love them. Or they may have children to show the world that they are a wonderful mother and father. Such parents are focused on what they need.
On the other hand, some parents have children without any expectations of the children fulfilling their own needs. They recognize their children as unique beings with their own missions and their own life destinies. Parents are there to guide them and help them find their path, and then let them go. Such parents are focused on their children=s needs. And they can say thank you for the privilege of being allowed to raise their children.
Which children are most likely to succeed in life? In our portion the most successful child was the one named not for what he could do for the mother, but for his own sake. It is a message that parents do not own their children and children are not born to fulfill their parents needs.
This thought is perhaps best expressed by the Lebanese philosopher and poet Khalil Gibran: “And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, `Speak to us of children.’
“And he said, `Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you, And though they are with you they belong not to you.’
“`You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”



“Surely the Lord is present in this place and I knew it not.”
(Genesis 28:16)

Jacob, fleeing from his brother Essau, had a dream. A ladder was resting on the ground with its top in the heavens. Angels of God were ascending and descending the ladder. Jacob awoke from his dream and cried out, “God was in this place and I knew it not.” He called that place on the border of the land of Canaan, Beit El meaning the House of God.
How often is God in a place and we do not even see God’s presence? Sometimes it takes a dream, an experience, a miracle, a moment of revelation to know that God is here. We see nothing but an empty material world, then suddenly, we feel the presence of God. It is almost like radio waves; we know they are there, but without a receiver we cannot tune them in. So too with God, we know there is a spiritual presence if only we can find how to tune in.
One of the questions children always ask me is, where is God? Does God actually have a physical place to dwell? Children may picture God as dwelling in the sky somewhere, an old man with a beard. As adults we are ready for a more sophisticated view of God.
God does not live in any place. In fact God is outside of space, like God is outside of time. God is called in Hebrew HaMakom which simply means the Space. God is not within space; if anything, space is within God. In fact, when Solomon built the great Temple in Jerusalem, he prayed to God, “But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built.” (1 Kings 8:27) God is beyond our conception of space.
In Hebrew the word olam means eternity, all of space and all of time. (These words entered the Jewish vocabulary long before Einstein discovered that space and time are really one.) As we sing at the end of Shabbat morning services, God is Adon Olam, literally The Master of Eternity. God was there before there was space or time. God literally dwells outside the physical three dimensions we call space. Or as I often teach, God dwells in separate spiritual dimension, beyond space and beyond time.
So we return to our question, where is God? How can we mortals, who live in a universe of space and time, possibly relate to an entity who lives outside of space and outside of time? How could Jacob have seen God in a particular space? And perhaps more important, how can we moderns who often feel that God is hiding, feel God’s presence? How can we tune in? How can we find the space where God dwells?
To search for an answer, we must turn briefly to Kabbalah, the great Jewish mystical tradition which has recently been rediscovered by so many Jews. Kabbalah teaches that God’s presence once filled all existence. In fact, there was no place for anything but God. To create a universe and make room for anything else, God had to literally compress Himself. In a notion called tzimtzum, God contracted within Himself. In doing so, God left behind divine sparks. It is these divine sparks which fill the physical world.
According to the mystics, it is our job as humans to uncover and raise up the divine sparks which God left everywhere. We have the power to bring out God in any space in the world. Through our actions, we can bring forth God in any space and in any time. Potential holiness lies everywhere, and we humans have been given the ability to release the divine sparks. Or to use the language of kabbalah, we humans can literally bring theShekinah (God’s indwelling in the physical world) to every place we desire.
This is an empowering understanding of God. We humans have the ability to bring God into the world. We do it through our prayers, through our mitzvot, through deeds of loving kindness, through Torah study. We do it through every small act that makes this world a little better. Our actions can affect God.
Perhaps the Kotzker Rebbe put it best. “Where is God?” he asked, “Wherever human beings let Him in.”
When we look out into the world and do not see God’s presence, we should stop asking the question “Where is God? Why is God hiding?” Instead we should ask, “What can I do to release some divine sparks, and bring God’s presence into this place.” Then like Jacob, we can truly say, “Surely the Lord is present in this place and I knew it not.”



“Give me children or I will die.”
(Genesis 30:1)

“Give me children or I will die,” cried Rachel to her husband Jacob. Jacob, rather than hugging her and comforting her, answered with anger. “Am I in God’s stead to give you children.”
To Rachel, infertility was a kind of a death. In fact, the Talmud compares infertility to death. Unfortunately, there are no mourning rituals for this kind of death, no shiva, no kaddish. Infertile couples feel alone, with no tradition for the community to give comfort. Having gone through infertility myself, I can testify that it is a kind of death.
My own rabbinic counseling has taught me that there are many losses that are a kind of a death. I have met with people coping with grievous losses – divorce, illness, bankruptcy, family estrangement, the loss of dreams. The mourning symptoms for all of these losses can be the same as when a loved one dies. There is shock, anger, guilt, depression, loss of faith, loneliness. Once again, there are no traditional rituals to help people cope with these kind of losses. Often they feel alone. To make matters worse, sometimes long time members of the synagogue will drift away when facing these crises in their lives.
How can we deal with these kind of losses? There is a fascinating insight from Jacob’s grandfather Abraham. He and his wife Sarah also faced infertility. Abraham prayed for the pagan king Abimelech when the wombs of the women of Abimelech’s kingdom closed up. God cured Abimelech, then in the next Biblical scene, God blessed Abraham and Sarah with a baby. Rashi comments that by praying for someone else facing the same crisis, Abraham and Sarah found their own cure.
In this brief passage is a powerful word of wisdom towards those suffering from a loss. When we turn outward and help others, we soon find our own relief. When cancer patients visit other cancer patients and give them support and comfort, they soon find their own healing. Their cancer may not be cured, but they find a sense of purpose and meaning. So it is with any loss. When we help others, we soon find that our own spirits are uplifted.
There are support groups for virtually every kind of pain and sadness we humans encounter. There are groups for infertility, for divorce, for a variety of illnesses, for those struggling with difficult children or difficult parents, for those dealing with addictions of all sorts, and certainly, for the bereaved. These groups are led by others who have suffered the same loss, felt the same death. Now, by helping others, they find relief from their own pain.
There is no simple solution to the many deaths life gives us. Time is a healer, as is counseling. Many religious institutions are introducing healing rituals. Perhaps the greatest healer is acts of loving kindness towards others facing the same pain. How true it is that the more gifts we give to others, the more we feel that we ourselves have received those gifts.