Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.” (Genesis 36:12)

I want to take a break this week from the painful news of the war in Gaza, the release of hostages, and growing antisemitism. I decided to write on a lighter subject, my love of Broadway musicals. I went to see Funny Girl last week at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. It was terrific.
For those who do not know, it tells the story of the rise of the Jewish comedian-entertainer Fanny Brice from her humble beginnings as a Jewish immigrant to super-stardom. It also tells the painful story of her failed marriage to the gambler Nicky Arnstein. When it opened in 1964 on Broadway and then became a movie in 1968, the role made Barbra Streisand a star. Of course, Barbra has the skills the role needs – comedic timing and a gorgeous singing voice. And it helped that she is Jewish.
When the show was revived on Broadway in 2022, there was much controversy over casting. Beanie Feldstein was given the role of Fanny Brice, a wonderful Jewish comedian but lacking the singing voice. She was forced to leave the show early, and her understudy Julie Benko took over. Julie has the comic ability, the singing voice, and is Jewish, and the show was a career changer for her. But she did not have the name recognition. So, Lea Michele of Glee fame took over the role. She has a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother, was not raised Jewish, but has enough Judaism in her blood to take over the role.
That brings me to the show I saw. The touring company stars Katerina McCrimmon, amazingly talented. The show requires someone that can send the audience into intermission with “Don’t rain on my parade” ringing in their ears. McCrimmon deserved her standing ovation. But then I read several articles and reviews of the show. McCrimmon is a Cuban American from Miami, not Jewish. These reviewers asked why could they not find a Jewish actress? According to one review, if a Jewish actress sings in a heavy Yiddish accent, “I’m Private Schwartz from Rockaway,” it is self-deprecating humor. If a non-Jewish actress sings it, it is the sin of “cultural appropriation,” forbidden in our woke world. I could not believe the religion or ethnic background of the lead actress is even an issue, but we live in a world of identity politics.
That brings me to a deeper problem of our culture today. Our identity politics teaches that only a Jewish actor can play a Jewish character. People are upset that Bradley Cooper, not Jewish, is starring in the movie Maestro as the Jewish composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein. He even had a prosthetic nose to look more the part. In 2004 people were upset that the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof starred Alfred Molina, a talented but non-Jewish actor. Many people felt that only a Jew can play Tevye the milkman. In fact, the Monty Python show Spamalot makes fun of this. One of the songs goes, “We won’t succeed on Broadway if we don’t have any Jews.”
We live in a world where people are placed in boxes according to their religious or ethnic background. On Broadway or in Hollywood, only Jews can play Jews, only gays can play gays, only Hispanics can play Hispanics, only Asians can play Asians, only the disabled can play the disabled. We are judged not by our individual talent but by our group identity. It is part of the entire identity politics that has taken over the left.
This issue reminds me of a verse from this week’s Torah portion. A young woman named Timna wants to switch her identity and become part of the people Israel. She seeks to convert to Judaism. She is turned away; the closest she can do to being part of the people is by becoming the concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz. As a result, Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jewish people is born. When people are closed out from being part of a community, there are negative consequences.
Acting is acting. No role should be closed to anyone because they are the wrong ethnicity. After all, in the original cast of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton was played by a Puerto Rican, Eliza Hamilton was played by a Filipino, Aaron Burr was played by a black man, and King George was played by a white gay actor. I was privileged to see an extremely talented Cuban American sing her heart out as Fanny Brice. The fact that she is not Jewish is irrelevant.

“Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath—now Bethlehem.” (Genesis 35:19)
Last week I wrote about how, in the book of Genesis, we often see that actions have consequences. What goes around, comes around. What we put out into the universe can come back to bless us or to bite us. We see this in this week’s portion in a very painful way.
Last week Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel stole her father’s idols or gods. Her father Laban came looking for them and Rachel hid them in a camel cushion. She claimed that she was unable to stand up because she was suffering the way of women. It is unclear why Rachel stole these gods; some claim it was her way of proving her inheritance. But Jacob became furious at his father-in-law, and uses words that he will later regret, “Whoever has taken the gods will not remain alive” (See Genesis 31:32).
Jacob had no way of knowing that with his words, he was condemning his beloved wife to death. In this week’s portion, Rachel becomes pregnant for the second time. She struggles in childbirth, naming her newborn son Ben Oni “son of my struggle” before her soul leaves her body. Jacob renames the son Benjamin. Jacob buries his beloved wife Rachel near Bethlehem, the only of our fathers and mothers who was not buried in the family tomb at the Cave of Machpelah. There, according to the prophet Jeremiah, Rachel weeps for the children of Israel being sent into exile. (See Jeremiah 31:15, part of the haftarah for the 2nd Day Rosh Hashana.)
This tragic story teaches the power of words spoken in haste, without considering the consequences of those words. One of the most important ideas taught in the Bible is the power of words. At the beginning of Genesis God creates a world by speaking words, “Let there be light.” We begin our daily preliminary prayers with the phrases, Baruch sh’Amar v’Hiya HaOlam, “Blessed is the One Who spoke and the world came into being.” Later the book of Proverbs would teach, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).
Children love to say, “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” But as these children grow up, they quickly learn that words can hurt.. And as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has written, words can also heal. (See his 1996 book Words that Hurt, Words that Heal.) Frequently someone approaches me and reminds me of something I said years before that was a positive influence in their life. Often I do not remember those words. But it is comforting to know that my words made a difference in someone’s life.
I often write about what separates humans from the rest of the animal world. Animals live in a world of nature, whereas humans live in a world of culture. It is language that allows us to create that world of culture. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), probably the most brilliant philosopher of the twentieth century, built an entire philosophy on what he called “shared language.” Language takes on meaning by the way we humans use it within the context of a community. It is through language that we build a community, and ultimately a culture that we can pass down to our children.
In the Bible, God punishes humanity for the hubris of building the Tower of Babel. The purpose of the tower was to challenge God. The punishment was confusing human speech, so humans could not communicate with one another. Something very deep is lost when we humans lose our power of speech.
Words have power. Words can create worlds and words can destroy worlds. Jacob learns that the hard way with hasty words. His words cause the death of his wife. Let me quote the ancient Chinese spiritual leader Lao Tzu, “Watch your thoughts for they become words, watch your words for they become actions, watch your actions for they become habits, watch your habits for they become your character, watch your character for it becomes your destiny.”

“This is the line of Esau, that is Edom.” (Genesis 36:1)
Many consider the last chapter in this portion, Genesis 36, the most boring in Genesis. For 43 verses, the Torah contains a long list of names of the descendants of Esau, the older brother of Jacob. Multiple nations and kings descended from the Esau, the brother who was rejected for the covenant. Why this long list of names?
The Torah clearly favors Jacob over Esau. He is the one who receives his father’s blessing, even if by stealth. His life story is told. Later, the book of Malachi teaches that God loved Jacob and hated Esau. In this week’s portion there is a reconciliation between the two brothers, but never full acceptance or brotherly love. The story of Esau and his descendants should have fallen out of the Torah. So why this long chapter?
An idea occurred to me this week tied to current political debates. Jacob and Esau are not simply brothers. They are archetypes of two kinds of human beings. Jacob is a man of the tent while Esau is a hunter. Jacob is committed to learning while Esau is an outdoorsman. Isaac will say, “the voice is the voice of Jacob while the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22). Jacob lives by his voice, by reading and learning and teaching. Esau lives by his hands, in a physical world. Small wonder that Esau is willing to satisfy his hunger by selling his birthright for a bowl of soup. He lives in the world of the physical while Jacob lives in the world of the intellectual.
Jacob’s name changes in this portion to Israel, a name of that means “wrestles with God.” Think of the blue and white of the Israeli flag. (Hint – when you see Jacob, think blue.) Esau is ruddy and red, and so goes by the name Edom (red in Hebrew.) He will become the forebearer of Rome and eventually Christianity. (Hint – when you see Esau, think red.) And that brings me to modern politics.
We live in a country deeply divided, where each side demonizes the other. We have blue states and red states. Blue states, particularly in the Northeast and far West, have large concentrations of the intellectual class, living in such cities as New York and Los Angeles. Red states, in the Midwest and south, have large concentrations of working people and rural populations. Blue states tend towards liberal or even progressive politics. Red states tend towards conservative and sometimes reactionary politics. Blue states have large concentrations of people who work with their minds and their voices, like Jacob. Red states have large concentrations of people who work with their hands, like Esau. Sadly today, like Jacob and Esau in the Bible, neither side tolerates or even understands the other side.
Personally, as a Jew who serves a congregation filled with college educated professionals – doctors, lawyers, accountants, professors – I tend to mingle with those who lean towards the blue. But I live in Florida, with vast areas of rural voters as well as working class people – who tend towards the red. I live in a blue enclave in the midst of a red state. Sometimes the tension is palatable. Not only were Jacob and Esau divided, our country is divided.
Perhaps the Torah teaches this long list of descendants of Esau to teach us a lesson. We need the red as well as the blue. We need people who work with their hands as well as people who work with their voices. The accountant needs the car mechanic to keep his auto running smoothly. And the car mechanic needs the accountant to prepare his taxes. Jacob needs Esau and Esau needs Jacob. Blue and red need one another.
The Torah takes on a much deeper meaning if we see Jacob and Esau not simply as brothers but as archetypes. Jacob is the intellectual, who lives by his voice, represented by blue. Esau is the worker, who lives by his hands, represented by red. The long list of Esau’s descendants comes to teach us that he is needed. Blue and red, Jacob and Esau, need each other.

“Now Dinah the daughter of Leah who was born to Jacob went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, took her, and lay with her by force.” (Genesis 34:1 – 2)
In the book of Genesis, filled with difficult stories, none is more disturbing than the story of Dinah. Dinah the only daughter of Jacob goes out to see the daughters of the land. She is taken by Shechem the son of a local chieftain, and either raped or seduced. (According to the 1997 novel The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, she is in a consensual relationship.) Shechem loves her and seeks to marry her. Jacob and his sons insist that all the men of the community be circumcised, and they agree.
On the third day as they are recovering from the circumcision, Jacob’s two sons Simeon and Levi slay all the men of the town. Together with Jacob’s other sons, they seize all the wealth of the town. Jacob condemns this horrific action on the part of his sons. But they only reply, “Should our sister be treated like a harlot!” (Genesis 34:31)
Who is the villain of this story? Certainly, Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi are deserving of condemnation. Towards the end of the book of Genesis Jacob once again condemns them. “Simeon and Levi are a pair, their weapons are tools of lawlessness … Curse be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:5,7). Nonetheless, they only come into the story at the end. Who set these events in motion?
Certainly, Shechem deserves some of the blame. He seems to be an arrogant young man, son of a chieftain and feeling self-important. He sees a naïve young woman from the House of Israel and chooses to take advantage of her. Nonetheless, the Hebrew in the story is somewhat vague. Does he rape her or use his charms and position to seduce her? And is she a victim or a willing participant, as in Diamant’s novel? Like any good Biblical story, this can be interpreted in multiple ways.
Jewish tradition blames Dinah herself. Rashi claims that she was a yatzanit “woman who goes out.” It was unseemly for a daughter of Israel to be going out. Such behavior was not in keeping with the Jewish value of tz’niut “modesty.” Today we would compare her to a young woman who goes out every night clubbing. Rashi blames Leah, who he claims was also a woman who went out. He makes the comment “like mother, like daughter.” Personally, I think Rashi is being a bit unfair.
I have always understood the story differently. Why does the Torah say, “Dinah the daughter of Leah?” The Torah always identifies people by their father’s name. Could it be that Jacob was an absentee father to his only daughter? Could it be that Dinah did not feel the love of her father? Often daughters who feel ignored by their father go “looking for love in all the wrong places,” to quote the famous country song. We get a hint of this idea at the end of the story, when the brothers say, “shall our sister be treated like a harlot?” Rashi explains the phrase that she was treated as hefker which in Hebrew means “ownerless.” The sons seem to imply that Jacob treated his daughter as someone ownerless.
I realize that blaming Jacob is both radical and controversial. But it rings true to me. All children need parents in their lives. But there is a particular importance to the relationship between a father and a daughter. If a daughter is to grow up someday and learn to love a man, she must learn from the love of her father. Obviously, many young ladies grow up without fathers and live normal healthy lives. But my concern is the number of men who step away from their responsibilities as a father, leaving daughters (and sons) as hefker. Too often I have seen young ladies, abandoned or even abused by fathers, who grow up to have unhealthy relationships with men.
In the animal world, to be a father is to be a sperm donor. In the human world, to be a father is to be much more, a loving presence in the lives of both daughters and sons. Perhaps that is the lesson of the painful story of Dinah.


“He said, your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince you have wrestled with God and with men and have prevailed.”  (Genesis 32:29)

As I write this, I am sitting in the airport in Boston waiting for a flight home to Fort Lauderdale.  (Brrr!)  I have spent five days at a joint convention for the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative rabbis) and United Synagogue (Conservative synagogues.)  I was invited to lead a workshop which I called, “The Chutzpah of the Rabbis.  Multiple Interpretations of the Genesis Creation Story.”

We were invited to submit workshop ideas that dealt with the future of Conservative Judaism.  For those who have heard me speak, you know that one of my favorite themes is the willingness of the rabbis of each generation to interpret and reinterpret the sacred texts of our tradition.  The Talmud teaches that every verse of the Torah has seventy possible meanings.  For this late Friday night workshop (it began at 9:45 pm), I gave four very different ways to understand the first verse in Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”  This is one more interpretation than my recent book Three Creation Stories.  My workshop kicked off a wonderful discussion on science, philosophy, and religion.

The fascinating question is – what gives the rabbis the right to constantly interpret and reinterpret the text?   Where does this chutzpah of the rabbis come from?  (For those unfamiliar with the Yiddish term chutzpah, it means brazenness.  Chutzpah is the man who murders his parents and then asks for leniency because he is an orphan.)  This right of interpretation is a central Jewish idea.  Or as I have often put it, Judaism is not what the Torah says, but what the Rabbis say the Torah says.  I think the root of this idea lies in this week’s portion.

In this portion, Jacob is about to be reunited with his brother Esau who twenty years early had threatened to kill him.  He stays up all night wrestling with … a man, an angel, God, or perhaps his own conscience.  In the end the man blesses Jacob and changes his name to Israel.  The name literally means “wrestles with God.”  Our name Israel literally means wrestles with God.  Jews do not passively accept God’s word.  Abraham argues with God, as does Moses and Job (not a Jew but in the Hebrew Bible).  In the Talmud Rabbi Joshua responds to a voice from heaven with the words, “the Torah is not in heaven.”  In Hasidic tradition, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditshev pulled out two pieces of paper.  He cried to God, “The short list is my sins against You, O God.  The long list is your sins against our people.  If you forgive me, O God, I will forgive you.”

We not only wrestle with God.  We also wrestle with God’s holy word, the Torah and other sacred texts of our tradition.  Other faiths submit to God’s word.  In fact, that is the meaning of the Islam – submission to God.   In Jewish tradition we do not passively accept the text as God’s final word.  We struggle with the text, constantly trying to find new and different meanings.   Often those meanings take us far from the simple meaning of the text.  That is fine, because Jewish tradition itself teaches that every text has multiple meanings hidden inside.

Without going into too much detail here, let me share what I taught Friday night.  I looked at the original text of the beginning of Genesis.  From the beginning, it is a problematic text.  Rashi, the great Biblical interpreter, writes “this text cries out for interpretation.”  I spoke about what I believe the author of the Bible meant by the text.  Then I spoke about how the Rabbis who wrote hundreds of years later, interpreted the text.  Then I looked at how the philosophers of the Middle Ages interpreted this same text.  Finally, I looked at how the mystics of the thirteenth century understood the text.  These four approaches gave me four very different interpretations, and four different ways to understand the creation story.

So who is right?   What I love about wrestling with a text is that they are all right.  Our tradition allows multiple interpretations.  The word Israel means not only that we wrestle with God, but that we wrestle with God’s holy text.

“Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz, she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.” (Genesis 36:12)
Chapter 36 is probably the most boring chapter in Genesis. It gives a long list of the various descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob and the son who was not given the covenant. Why is it important that we read all of these names? Let me share one insight of the rabbis. In general, Torah genealogies mention the men but not the woman. Yet here it mentions a woman named Timna who became a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz. Why is she important so that the Torah goes out of its way to mention her?
According to Rabbinic tradition, Timna is the daughter of a local chieftain. Growing up she becomes impressed with the teachings of Abraham. She wants to convert to Judaism and become part of the people Israel. But she is turned away. Desperate to connect to this people, she makes the best decision she could. She becomes a concubine to the son of Esau, who is the grandson of Abraham. If she could not join the people Israel through conversion, she would associate with them through concubinage. She then gives birth to Amalek, who according to tradition is the eternal enemy of the Jewish people. The lesson is that our greatest enemy is born because a woman was turned away from conversion.
I am often asked how I foresee the future of Judaism and particularly Conservative Judaism. My answer is that the key to a Jewish future lies with conversion. Thousands of people are seeking to join the Jewish people. Some want to join because they are married or seek to marry Jews. But countless others want to join because they see great wisdom and wonderful spirituality in the tradition called Judaism. Whole communities in various parts of the world are seeking to become Jewish, particularly in places like Africa and South America. But often the Jewish community is less than welcoming.
Recently a young man of color who went through a Conservative conversion in Uganda flew to Israel to study at the Conservative yeshiva. He was held at the airport and threatened with deportation because the authorities questioned his Judaism. It took the Israeli Supreme Court to settle that case. On a personal level, many of you know that I did a series of conversions in Colombia. One of these new Jews, a teenager, won the Colombian Jewish Bible contest, which gave her the chance to participate in the International Bible Contest in Jerusalem. She was told by Israeli authorities that the conversion was not valid and she could not participate. I made several phone calls to the Jewish Agency in Israel to no avail. In the end, they allowed her to do a quicky, emergency Orthodox conversion in order to participate.
We Jews are strangely ambivalent about welcoming non-Jews into our midst. I still remember as a child, my father had a Jewish partner whose wife converted to Judaism. Her husband got her a car with a license plate that said shiksa (Yiddish slang for a gentile woman.) Even as a child that license plate bothered me. A Jew is a Jew, whether born or converted into the tribe. From decades of experience as a rabbi, I can say that often our most committed members began life as non-Jews.
Timna wanted to convert and was turned away. She eventually became a concubine and the mother of the enemy of our people. Let us learn a lesson from her. Jews are not missionaries, we never say that someone must be Jewish to live a good life or find salvation. But for people who want to be Jewish, who are willing to put in a period of study, and who are willing to go through the proper rituals of conversion, Judaism is open to them. Let us welcome those who choose to become Jews by choice. Jewish life will be greatly enhanced by their participation in our community.

“Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.” (Genesis 34:2)
Like so many of us, I awoke this morning to find out that Matt Lauer was fired as host of the NBC Today Show. I was in shock. Lauer has been in my home reporting the news every weekday morning for over twenty years. He is the latest in a series of celebrities, politicians, and other public figures accused of workplace sexual harassment. These stories are all over the news today and are worthy of comment. But first, let us turn to our Torah portion and the story of Dinah.
Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, goes out among the daughters of the land. The son of the chieftain Hamor sees her, falls in love, and has his way with her. The Torah seems to indicate that she was raped, taken against her will. But perhaps she was seduced, convinced to have sex by an older, politically important man. Some have interpreted that the relationship was totally consensual; see Anita Diamant’s fictional account of the story The Red Tent. The story has a violent ending. Dinah’s brothers take a vicious revenge not only on Hamor but all the people of the town, slaughtering them after they had agreed to be circumcised.
Who is to blame for the seduction which led to this bloody revenge? The Medieval Torah commentator Rashi actually blames Dinah, calling her a yatzanit – a “girl who goes out.” She learned her improper ways from her mother Leah, also someone who “went out.” Rashi brings the saying, “like mother, like daughter.” Good Jewish girls do not go out. Or as the Psalmist says, “All the glory of the king’s daughter is within” (Psalms 45:14). This Medieval attitude of blame the victim is still prevalent today. Perhaps a young lady who was the victim of sexual abuse dressed provocatively and brought it on herself.
Let us read the story in light of contemporary news headlines. Here we have a naïve young girl who is either raped or seduced by the son of a powerful politician. Too often people of power try to take advantage sexually of those without power. Whether it is a politician seducing a worker, a movie producer trying to have his way with a young actress, or a celebrity exposing himself to a groupie, such sexual misconduct has become a daily occurrence. Usually it is a powerful man with a younger woman. But sometimes it can be the other way around. In next week’s portion we have the first ever case of sexual harassment in history. This time a woman is the perpetrator and a young man is the victim. Potiphar, the wife of Joseph’s master, tries to force herself on the young Hebrew Joseph. When Joseph flees, he finds himself in prison.
Many years ago I published a book on Jewish sexual ethics called Does God Belong in the Bedroom? In the book I developed a ladder of sexual behavior, from the totally unethical, to ethical but not holy, and finally at the top, to the holy. At the bottom of the ladder I placed any kind of non-consensual sex, as well as adultery or incest. Perhaps it is time to add to that list. Unethical sex is any sexual activity between two people where one has power over the other. Examples abound. It could be a professor with a student, a clergyperson with a congregant, a doctor or therapist with a patient, a lawyer with a client, or a boss with an employee. It certainly includes movie producers, politicians, and celebrities who take advantage of young fans.
Every day we read of another public figure who could not control their sexual urge. Often they used their power and their celebrity to take advantage of someone far weaker than them. Hamor was the son of the Chieftain of the community. Dinah was a naïve young girl. Even if she submitted willingly, there was something unseemly about their relationship. One senses that he took advantage of her.
Jewish tradition teaches that sex has the possibility of being not only ethical but holy. But it can only be holy if it takes place between two consenting adults who are equals, neither having power over the other. Perhaps we can look forward to a day when these horrible headlines about sexual harassment finally disappear.

“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” (Genesis 32:25)
Last week I spoke about the greed of Laban, and his attempt to cheat Jacob out of his proper wages. Traditionally Laban, although Jacob’s father-in-law, came to symbolize evil in Jewish tradition. The Passover seder tells the story, “Come and learn, look how Laban the Aramean tried to destroy our father Jacob.” It was only Jacob’s cleverness at animal breeding that allowed Jacob to earn his proper share of the sheep and goats.
If you read the story carefully, Jacob is also not without fault. We already know that he takes advantage of his brother’s hunger to get his birthright, and then he steals his brother’s blessing. He dislikes his first wife Leah, although she gives him six sons and a daughter,. sleeping with her only when her son finds some mandrakes. He grows angry at his beloved wife Rachel when she complains about her infertility. Based on last week’s reading, he seems to have used his animal husbandry skills to take more than his fair share of the sheep and goats. Laban’s sons complain to their father that Jacob had unfairly taken part of their share of the family business. Then, to top it all off, Jacob flees in the middle of the night with his wives, his concubines, his children, and his large herd of sheep and goats. Laban laments that he was not allowed to properly say goodbye to his daughters and grandchildren.
In Jacob’s defense, much of his behavior was in reaction to Laban’s duplicity. But long ago the Torah mentioned that Jacob’s name Yaakov comes from a root meaning not only “heel” but also “crooked.” There is something slightly crooked or sneaky about Jacob. At the beginning of this week’s portion, although he is travelling home and will be reunited with his brother Esau, he still has not become straight. Some would say that such sneakiness was a fundamental and unchangeable part of Jacob’s personality. After all, it says in the book of Ecclesiastes, “That which is crooked cannot be made straight” (Ecclesiastes 1:15). Can Jacob change?
I believe this explains the strange story towards the beginning of this week’s portion. Before meeting up with his brother Esau, Jacob is left alone by the stream of Jabbok. There he wrestles with a man all night long. When morning comes the man asks to leave, and Jacob tells him, not until you bless me. The man says to Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). The name Israel means “wrestles with God.” Jacob has a new name, and an injury to his sciatic nerve that will cause him to limp for the rest of his life.
Who was this man who wrestled with Jacob all night long? Some say it was literally God. Others say it was Esau’s guardian angel. Some say it was Jacob’s angel. But my favorite answer is that Jacob is wrestling with himself. He knows that he was not the kind of person worthy of the covenant God promised him. His name Jacob means crooked, and Jacob knows that in his dealings with his brother and his father, his wives and his father-in-law, he had often been crooked. Before coming back into the land of Canaan, he needs a new name. But equally important, he needs to become a new self. The wrestling with the angel was literally what my Christian friends might call, being born again. Jacob had to change.
One of the greatest teachings of Jewish tradition is that people can change. People can be born again. Sometimes such change happens over the course of days or even years. I think of people who go to various self-help meetings, and celebrate each day, each month, each year of being clean. Change is a slow, life-long struggle. But there are also people who have a moment of personal insight and transformation, people who wrestle with their own inner selves and walk away transformed. Sometimes it is painful and they walk away with a limp. But sometimes like Jacob, in such an encounter with one’s own self, they become a new person worthy of a new name. Jacob wrestles with his own inner self and becomes a new man. So in life, sometimes we each need to wrestle with our own inner self in order to be born again.

“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.

“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.
“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.

“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.


“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)



“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.



“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.



“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.



“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.



“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.



“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.



“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.



“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)



“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.