Category Archives: 21st Century P’shat

21st Century P’shat: 1-2 minute divrai Torah for each aliyah


  1. This reading states: “You shall return, each man to his achuza, and you shall return, each man to his family…” Achuza is not the same as property – it is inheritance. Because the property is assigned to families, the timelessness of the family is preserved by the inheritance of the Jubilee.
  2. If the sixth year is to be so great, why would we worry about the seventh? In fact, the sixth year is made great because of our intent to adhere to the seventh. Our trust in Hashem gives us the opportunity to rest in holiness. This is almost quantum holiness – where the effect can drive the cause.
  3. While the Torah refers to an inheritance, it does not refer to land ownership. Why? We only inherit the relationship with Hashem – because of that relationship we have effective title to the land. But absent of that relationship we have no claim. We return to our inheritance and we return to that relationship and an understanding of the timelessness of Hashem. In this world, loss is undone.
    1. Why can property in walled cities can be owned in perpetuity. Because cities are far more ‘man made.’ They do not offer a connection to the timeless in the way that land does. So there is no need to treat them as connectors through time. In a city, you can create wealth and lose wealth – but as we know families very rarely maintain title to things for generations. On the other hand, the cities of the Levites retain a holy character and can not be sold. In part, this is because for the Levites these cities are an inheritance in Hashem.
    2. The price of farmland is worked out by the value of its crops – with no discounting for time. Risk is ignored in the sale of land. This is a sign of our outright obstinence in the face of a ‘fallen’ reality. But city land can be sold in perpetuity – because it is not infinitely expensive it is clearly discounted for time. Risk is included. Why? Our relationship to Hashem must be approached as ‘risk-free.’ But the creations of man need not be treated in that way.
  4. Slaveowners in the South used verses 44-46 as justification for owning slaves. For me, this makes it one of the most troubling sections in all of Torah. Non-Jewish slaves are distinct in three ways: One, they can be worked with rigor. Two, your children can inherit them/their families. This reminds of the movie The Help, where the cleaning lady is inherited. But these pesukim never say you can sell a slave. While you may acquire them and they may serve you for generations, you are commanded to hold on to them. In fact, it never calls them property – it calls them an inheritance. The relationship to the slave’s history becomes part of your relationship to your own history and to Hashem. You are not free to break this connection or to pretend that you have actual title.  In many ways, rigorous labor or not, this slavery represents a far softer form that that practiced by the other nations or by foreigners in Israel; after all, they sold their slaves to you.
    1. In fact, the redemption from Egypt wasn’t a redemption of slaves per se – it was a redemption of the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov.
    2. The Industrial Age opened up a great moral opportunity to societies everywhere – they could live well without slaves. A man can produce about as much energy as a lightbulb uses – just imagine how many ‘slaves’ we have at work in our homes today. In a world where slavery is an almost totally necessary reality, can we see the form commanded here as moral?
  5. I’ve always read the land as getting back its missing Sabbaticals by not being farmed. But in fact the land is abandoned by the Jewish people and its Sabbaticals run away. Without the work, there is no Sabbath.
    1. At the end of the curses, Hashem will remember his covenant. In order to fulfill it, he must rescue the people. But he will also remember the Land. What covenant is there with the Land? There is one covenant with the land – the rainbow and the promise that there will be no flood to destroy the earth. If we think of the Jewish people as a seed to raise up our world to be ‘Better than Eden,’ then perhaps if the Jewish people are not remembered and do not bring the Sabbath to our land, then there will be no purpose to the Earth and Hashem’s covenant with it would also be undermined.
  6. This starts with the description of a strong pledge: “I pledge my Life to Hashem.” Rather than holding a man to such a promise, the value of that life is assigned. It is an escape valve limiting the negative impact of such a pledge. In this context, the different valuations of men, women, children and the elderly can be understood. A child or woman or old person has less opportunity to fulfill such a vow or (if they were vowed by someone else), less opportunity to help. Their inability should reduce the cost of such a vow – it represents the power they have to commit to it.
  7. What is this section about? Why does it matter what the consecrated land is valued at? I think this is of a piece with the previous reading. The question is, what does it cost to go back on such a permanent decision/donation. And the answer is given here. And until the year of the Jubilee, such a decision can be reversed. Why reduce the value as time passes? It is not because the land is worth less or more – if the Kohen keeps it forever it is worth basically the same amount. It is because if there are only a few years to reverse the choice, it has to be cheaper to walk it back. But if you have 49 years to take back such a decision then the cost can be higher.


  1. Judah steps up and provides the assurance Joseph needs. He puts his neck out on the line for his brother – the opposite of what happened with Joseph. Why? What is the only thing that changed (aside from the famine) while Joseph was away? The story of Tamar. Judah grew as a man by taking on not just truth, but responsibility. And he demonstrates it here and changes the future of the family.
    1. If we think of Avraham as connecting to others, Yitzchak as connecting across generations, Yaacov as fighting Fate, Yosef as planning and purpose then Judah can be thought of as taking responsibility.
  2. Joseph immediately tells the brothers not to worry about selling him (which they didn’t actually do). Why shouldn’t they worry? Wouldn’t he seem to have been vengeful and cruel up to this point? In fact, he has been testing, but not cruel. He has been gathering data and making plans. Fundamentally, Joseph only looks forward. Potiphar doesn’t suffer, Potiphar’s wife doesn’t suffer, his brothers don’t suffer. Joseph has no hatchet, he is too focused on the future. The past exists only as a data point.
  3. For the second time, we have a reference to Joseph as the ‘father of Pharoah’. Earlier, they call out AvRech (father of the King) when he is promoted. It seems to be a standard position in Egypt. I’m reminded of the Toyoda clan, which adopts adult men into the family to carry on the family name. Why? Because the actual genetic stock might not be up to snuff. Egypt had tremendous dynasties. Perhaps this was enabled by having AvRech – a smart administrator who could guide the less than perfect Pharoah. A regent, like Bismark, answerable to the King. The post disappears with Joseph – by giving so much property and power to Pharoah, he changes the fundamental nature of Mitzraim.
    1. Jacob seems unable to believe that Joseph was alive. But we saw in the ealier gift to the man in Egypt, that he suspected this was true. The wagons convince him of what he already suspected. This highlights the difference between hope and reality. Normally Jacob must fight for a reality better than the image of the future. Now, his image matches his reality – it can be hard to accept. He is not fighting Fate, but realizing Hope.
  4. Hashem promises Yaacov that Joseph will ‘place his hand on your eyes.’ The image I have is of death – the hand closing the eyes. But the line between the personal and national is obscured in this passage: “I will make you into a great nation…” And this gives another image – of the Jewish people placing their hands on their eyes for Shemah Yisrael. The character of Yisrael (Yaacov’s name) is fundamentally one of fighting Fate. It is the arm of Joseph – which represents purpose and planning – that enables us to close off our apparent reality and focus  on the reality of Hashem and our greater purpose. The hand of Joseph covering the eyes enables Yisrael to shema – hear and live up to our Avot. Joseph may not be an Av, but he is an enabler and that is reassuring to Yaacov.
  5. The wives of the brother’s are not named. The emphasis is on all being the descendants of Yaacov. But there is one exception – Joseph’s wife is named, as is her father. The tradition is that Potephera is the same person as Potiphar. Joseph’s wife, the daughter of Potiphar, was assigned to him by Pharoah. In so doing, Pharoah shamed Potiphar (changing the second part of him name from multiply to commoner). But Joseph does not shame Potiphar – Joseph does not choose his wife and Potiphar remains the governor of On. Joseph also has two amazing children who are focused not on ego, but on the future. His wife doubtlessly played an important role in raising the children (he was busy travelling and running Egypt). By seeing past the shame and the ego and by playing a key role in instilling those forward-looking values in her children, Asnath becomes a member of the Bnei Yisrael. And her father, by remaining an effective governor of On, earns the same honor.
    1. Why name every member of the family now? When Hashem redeems the people  from Egypt, he pulls slaves from another society. Slaves tend to be a hodgepodge of peoples all mixed for the purpose of hard labor. One might argue that Hashem simply rescues slaves because they are slaves. With the entire family being named, it is clear at the beginning of their transformation they were all descendants of Yisrael – and the Canaanite blood in them is irrelevant. The Jewish people are not rescued because they are slaves, they are rescued because they are the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov and every one who leaves is connected to those who came.
  6. Pharoah asks ‘how many are the days of your life?’ Yaacov gives a long response. He identifies two lengths – the length of sojourning and the length of life. He has soujourned – a ger or stranger, fundamentally unsettled – for many years. But the years of his life are short and bad. How can we square these? They key is in this distinction. Life is first ascribed to animals – and one gets a sense of life being undomesticated or free. Jacob has always been constrained – yes, he’s fought the constraints – but his life is defined by battle.  When he says his days of freedom/life haven’t ‘achieved’ what his forefather’s days of freedom achieved, he is saying that his days of freedom have been neither numerous nor productive. But his days of struggle are many indeed – and they have been productive.
  7. Joseph buys the land of Egypt and thus the people. He transfers them to cities and he sets them to work as tenant farmers – like blacks after the civil war. Joseph enslaves Egypt. Just as the baker is imprisoned, so too is Egypt. His changing of Pharoah deprives Egypt of a respect for what came before and his changing of Egyptians deprives  them of the experience of productivity. The become neither Good nor Holy – they become a people Hashem can punish because they have lost all redeeming qualities.
    1. Joseph tries to set the Jewish people up so they can live well in Egypt. But it doesn’t work. Their very wealth and success become the reasons the Egyptians can’t afford to let them go. Joseph ends up playing a key role in enslaving the Jews while also demonstrating the limits of plans. Fate can be defied, but Hashem’s edicts are greater than any Fate.


  1. When Joseph was being released, the guards rushed him. But he interceded. He insisted on shaving and fresh clothes. He could delay Pharoah, but he could not look anything but great. Joseph understood his power in the society – it was always connected to his looks. Joseph recognizes the tools he has available and uses them. At this point, after the disasters of wandering towards Dothan and into his brother’s trap and being along with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph has become – far more than any of his fathers – a planner.
  2. With Joseph’s first dreams, G-d did not appear. In the second, the interpretation belongs to G-d. In the third, Joseph recognizes that there is not ‘one’ interpretation. Rather, Hashem can grant you a favorable interpretation after the dream. He realizes dreams have no power of their own. Hashem is behind everything. Joseph puts Fate in its place. He follows this by explaining that even if the interpretation of the dream is negative, it can be overcome by somebody who plans and is perceptive. He puts Fate below the powers of even a well-organized and thoughtful man.
    1. The word for selling and grain are the same – shavar. It is associated with grain sales later, but always as a curse. This kind of sale is not normal, there are other words for that. This is a soul-rotting sale of desperation. It is not a sale for growth, but survival. It reminds me of farmers eating their cattle for lack of water – they destroy their future to preserve their present. More ominously, it reminds me of Jews selling everything before they flee. Joseph undoes Egypt with these sales – making all of Egypt the property of Pharoah and creating a rotting society.
    2. I saw a discussion online: if you eat yourself would you be twice as big or nothing at all? This seems like the description of Egypt.
  3. After his appointment, Joseph immediately goes ‘on tour.’ He doesn’t sit and give orders and believe they will be followed. Joseph micromanages the greatest project in human history. Why? Why not trust that it will work or that Pharoah’s command will be carried out? Joseph has become a planner. What is he planning? It is simple. When he later reveals himself to his brothers, the first reason he gives for being sent down to Egypt is that Hashem sent him to save lives, not just their lives. Joseph might just see this project as his purpose
    1. Why does Pharoah give Joseph so much more power than he asks for? Joseph has made a fundamental leap. His pitch to Pharoah is that Pharoah can preserve the land – not the people who last but a generation – but the timeless land itself. We crave something greater than themselves; call it purpose. Joseph offers Pharoah purpose – and presents himself as a vehicle for fulfilling it. Pharoah will offer him anything to make it reality.
  4. Why does Joseph remember the dream now? Perhaps he has settled into Egypt and forgotten the past? Certainly, he has stayed connected to Hashem, but not his family. Perhaps this break is why he never reaches out to his father. But Joseph then jumps from the dream remembrance to accusing his brothers of being spies – seeking to see the emptiness/nakedness of the land. Why would Egypt be worried about a few Canaanite spies seeing the naked truth about Egypt? Especially when so many others from Canaan are buying grain? Perhaps Joseph is actually expressing his plan. Perhaps he intends to see the nakedness of his family – and ascertain whether he should return.
  5. Yaacov offers the strangest gift to the man in Egypt. It is the ‘song of the land’ and he calls it a ‘Minchah’ – not just a present. Minchah comes from Nach – comfort. One calls to mind his ‘guarding’ of Joseph’s fate. Perhaps he unconsciously hoped that the governor of Egypt might be Joseph and perhaps he imagined that the ‘song of the land’ would be a comfort to him.
  6. If Joseph was seeking to uncover the nakedness of the brothers’, they passed their first test. They returned the money. They demonstrated honesty in business and they brought Benjamin. Joseph is deeply touched, but this isn’t enough for him to decide to reunite. He is a man of planning and perception. He needs more evidence that he should return.
  7. And so Joseph threatens to keep Benjamin. If they will defend Benjamin at risk to themselves – repudiating in action their previous sins – then he will reunite with them. If not, then he will stay with Benjamin – whom he loves – and let them suffer for their own problems.


  1. Where Yaacov defied Fate – and became an Av because of it – Joseph seems to embrace it. He sees the dreams and shares them. As a servant of Fate, Joseph can be great, but he can never be an Av. But perhaps even more ominously, Yaacov ‘guards’ his dreams. Yaacov, for his favorite son, seems to treat Fate as something to protect. This, for a man like him, is dangerous.
  2. Joseph’s brothers refer to their brother as a dreamer – and somebody they must kill. Today, we see dreaming in a positive way; either it is a reflection of aspiration or it is prophecy. But, in Yaacov’s family, it was different. Dreams of Joseph’s sort are a future to be battled. But there are two ways to battle the status quo. One way is to build and the other is to tear down. When well-earned jealousy and anger enter the picture, the brothers contemplate murder – which falls into the destructive bucket.
  3. Joseph’s brother’s plan to sell him, but passing Midianites beat them to the punch. They sell him to Ishmaelites – people who from their cargo are clearly not slave traders. And then, stranger still, the Midianites are also the people who sell Joseph to the Egyptians. What are the Midianites doing in this transaction? The word Midian means to haggle or trade. Selling slaves was a specialty business. I’d suggest that the brothers may have failed to sell Joseph, so middlemen were necessary to make Fate into reality.
  4. Tamar’s act is another in a series of ‘immoral’ acts that define our history. These include the acts of Lot’s elder daughter, the marriage of Moshe’s parents that violate the sexual rules (almost every other one of which seems to belong in the category of big no-no), and the marriage of Ruth and Boaz which (from the straight-forward reading) would seem to be prohibited. Tamar upsets the status quo – but she does so constructively. But she does more than defined the genetic history of King David. She redefines Judah himself. Judah was a man who ‘went down’ from his brothers and hung out with a low-class friend and visited prostitutes (for his friend to pay off secretly) all while pretending to be moral. He took public morality to the point of ordering his daughter-in-laws execution for harlotry, something he had partaken in. But she raises him up – even in great danger. She doesn’t say “this is Judah’s”, she lets him admit the truth. And he does, he recognizes he had fallen, he does the right thing – and he rises in the face of adversity. These are the ways of leadership – but sometimes they must be brought out before they become real.
  5. At the beginning of the reading we see the Ishmaelites handing over Joseph. Why? Perhaps the non-slave trading Ishmaelites might only have been able to sell him wholesale. The price might not have been high enough and so they may have returned to Gerar with him. But the Midianites could get a better deal and enabled him to stay in Egypt. As we see later with Balaam, the Midianites are religious – but in the ancient way of respecting and defending the status quo. They are tools of Fate. And Joseph’s dream is a Fateful dream. Of course, the Jews exterminate them when they leave Egypt – it is part of our DNA to resist reality and undermine those who defend it.
  6. The Torah makes a special point of saying that Joseph faced no oversight. Why? In the first place, Hashem’s blessing of Potiphar’s House helps. But in both cases, his beauty and charisma play a key role. He is very Greek – wrapped up in Fate and physical beauty. But unlike Greeks, he continues to fear G-d, which rescues him.
  7. We come to the dreams of others. Now, Yosef interprets (for the first dreams, his brothers did). He recognizes dreams alone lack power. They need interpretation. This is the first step in his rise above Fate  – and thus his fulfillment of it.
    1. The Egyptians had wine, but grew no grapes. In Canaan, wine had been made for thousands of years (a new cellar from 1700 BCE was just found). But the Egyptians invented bread that rose and remained the world leader in it for millenia. It is their ‘living’ food, which is one reason we ban it on Pesach. The dreams are that the cupbearer/Israel will have his head lifted up to serve his King in a time of 3 somethings. On the same timeline, the baker/Egypt will have its head lifted off its shoulders. As it takes more than 200 years, this is 2+ centuries (rounded to three just as we’d round two and a half days to saying something will happen in three days).
    2. As part of this prophecy – both parties are in prison in the intervening years. The Israelites as slaves, and the Egyptians as people without creative ability locked into dependency on those same slaves.

Summary of Speech for Jared’s conversion (shortened because it borrows from the above and squished in with some later remarks):

As we see in this week’s parsha, Jews have a difficult relationship with Fate. It is a force to be fought. Jared points out that Jewish history is a history of resisting, painfully, the dictates of reality. This is who we are. Jared has joined this people. He was born one way. A statistician could predict his future. But he has chosen to fundamentally counter his reality. Whether it was triggered by an event in Jerusalem or done out of the blue, the act of converting to Judaism – of taking on our challenges – is an act of defiance. G-d creates for six days and rests on the seventh. But when he creates, he doesn’t get out a hammer and nails. He speaks and changes the status quo constructively. This is creation. And Jewish creation is epitomized by the challenging of our reality and all its shortcomings in a productive way. We see this borne out by Tamar – she challenges her reality, she breaks the rules, but she does so constructively. When Jared joined the Jewish people, he took on the characteristics of the Avot. Avraham was the first person to work with one other person and connect to them through that – namely his wife. Jared, by evidence of the many people here today, connects to others. Yitzchak connected across generations, we see that in Jared connecting Moses – his non-Jewish son – with his father who is also here. And Yaacov defies Fate. And in the very act of conversion, Jared does the same. We live in a world where Fate seems to be against us. Israel’s superpower sponsor is withdrawing the from the world – we are threatened by an extremist and increasingly powerful Persia. And we must resist. It is who we are. It is my beracha to Jared that he continue to defy Fate and build a Jewish life. And it is my beracha to the rest of us that Jared show us a bit of the defiance we need to create a better future and hasten the coming of Mochiach.


  1. Why would Yaacov send out a message to Esav saying how rich he is and how he wants to be favored in his eyes? It seems like a suicide note. Yaacov is playing with ancient and powerful ideas of fate. His blessing was success and for brothers who would bow to him. This message seems to be trying to play on the impact of the blessing; look, I’m successful (so beware) but I’m also not asking for you to bow (so don’t be angry).
  2. What earns him the name Yisrael? That he fights man and G-d and overcomes. As I see it, he fights fate and defies it. The cast path – whether it be from a prophecy in the womb, or birth order or the love of a father or from Lavan – doesn’t constrain him. Yaacov pays a dear price every time he fights fate; but he eventually wins. He sees G-d face-to-face – which MUST mean death – and he survives.
  3. Why does Yaacov separate his bands in the first reading? Surely Esav could kill one and track down the other. He’s been waiting years, I wouldn’t think he’d get distracted. We see why later. Yaacov finally approaches Esav with his entire family. The other band must be everybody else – bystanders who Esav will not track down and kill. Yaacov is protecting his charges. They don’t need to fight his fate.
  4. Why does Yaacov want to pay Esav? Because Yaacov becomes a vassal with the gift. When you read Esav’s blessing, he has a chance to break free of the ‘blessing.’ Yaacov is saying – “you’re free, I am granting you superiority.” Esav, bit by bit, realizes Yaacov is terminating his dominance. Like a great man, Esav must make a show of turning down the gift – but it cements the reality he desires. Yaacov isn’t left empty handed though. If Esav takes the gift, he can’t just kill Yaacov. After all, he’s accepted his tribute.
  5. Yaacov is named Yisrael again. What happens before? He fulfills his vow to Hashem and recognizes where his ability to defy fate comes from. And then he buries Devorah under THE elyon. It is a prominent burial for a servant. Where Eliezer is fated to be buried in obscurity, Yisrael ignores fates and honors Devorah.
    1. If it is a tree, the elyon seems to be the same species of  tree where the idols of Yaacov’s camp are buried. But there is a difference. The sentence of the buried idols can be translated as “he buried the strange gods by the god of Shechem.” He destroys Shechem’s god and condemns the other gods with it. But Devorah is honored – and another word is used so as to ensure no confusion.
    2. This reading has the first use of the word ‘tumah.’ What happens? We see a pattern of lost potential in Tumah – human and higher animal bodies are tumah. When Dinah is literally ‘oppressed’ she has potential lost. It is a waste of tremendous human potential. One might imagine Dinah being the 13th tribe. Interestingly, the same word is not used later in rape law.
    3. It is not Shechem’s neshama which desires Dinah, it is his nefesh. Animals have Nephesh. It is not his soul, it is his animal spirit.
    4. And again, we see love. But it is a double-edged sword – it does not yield joy.
  6. Rachel’s naming of Benoni is one of the saddest statements in Torah.  The word anah is a diminutive of ani (I). She’s dying and even as she is giving birth to a son (which the midwife sees as wonderful) she casts herself as a lesser person – not because of her suffering and death, but because of her life. Unlike Leah, Rachel was beautiful and loved. Her eyes were not weak. She seemed to have a great fate. But that did not yield her long life, many sons or great joys. She says ‘she is dead’ earlier and it seems that it is about to be reality when Hashem rescues her with the birth of Yosef. She seems to be both a blessed and a fundamentally depressed person. She is totally aware of her own lost potential.
  7. There is enormous ink spent on Esav’s children. It reinforces the invalidation of Yitzchak’s blessing. But why is that so important? Perhaps because Yaacov is right, fate can be overturned. Esav’s many progeny and kings demonstrate that is true. Aside from the promises of Hashem, we must recognize that blessings or curses, good fates or bad, strengths or weaknesses – everything that is cast in stone can be broken to bits. We are a people who connect like Avraham, link across generations like Yitzchak and defy the boundaries of our lives like Yaacov. And with these strengths, we have the power to roll back the expulsion from the Garden and even exceed its limitations.


  1. We open with Yaacov ‘praying.’ We associate this with Ma’ariv, but as with the other two prayers there is no actual ‘praying’ going on. In this case, Yaacov sleeps and Hashem answers his greatest fear: that he has no future. This fear runs throughout – it is why he forces Esav into selling the birthright and why he goes beyond Rebecca’s opportunism to lie to his father and ensure he gets his blessing. Hashem sees this and, in Yaacov’s greatest moment of need reassures him with a prophecy of thousands of years in the life of Israel (his name). It isn’t enough – Yaacov only offers his ‘house of G-d’ conditionally.
    1. At this point, Yaacov is not yet great enough to encounter Hashem while awake.
    2. Why does Yaacov merit such attention? What has he done that is so great? Abraham worked with his wife, Yitzchak created connections between generations. Yaacov did something perhaps even greater – he defied fate. The ancient world was dominated by the idea of unavoidable fate and he fought it, and lost and fought it again. He never seemed to believe reality was set in stone.
    3. My brother Isaiah points out that the sun goes down when Yaacov leaves Israel and comes up (before the encounter with Esav) when he returns. The sun rises and sets on Israel’s presence in the land.
  2. Yaacov’s challenge is more all the clearer when he weeps on Rachel. He lacks confidence, but encountering her gives him some hope – something even Hashem couldn’t provide.
    1. On the Lavan track, we encounter a very different well than Eliezer found. Aside from Rachel, no women come to draw water. In fact, there’s a big rock on the well because nobody trusts anybody else any more. The community has been poisoned. We’ll see why as this parsha continues.
  3. Leah lacks a connection to Yaacov. So Hashem blesses her with children. Why? She is deserving of being a fully connected part of humanity. This need for connection is part of what sets Abraham apart. If Leah can’t connect with her own husband, Hashem will connect her by giving her children who form a link in the ongoing chain of humanity.
  4. Hashem zachors Rachel. When used with Hashem, this term normally describes when somebody must be saved in order to keep the covenant. Rachel says earlier that she is dead without children – she might now be in such dire straits that she needs rescue to be zachored. But where’s the covenant? Hashem has promised her nothing. But just as Yishmael was saved because of a covenant with Abraham, Rachel may be saved because of Hashem’s covenant with Yaacov and her connection, in turn, to him.
  5. The rods thing is a weird miracle. First, it isn’t presented as a miracle. Second, we know from genetics and biology that peeled sticks don’t make animals go into heat and have stripped children. Third, Yaacov has a whole story about it in which he changes key details (like whose idea it was). fourth, Hashem doesn’t seem command this weird act beforehand. So why does Yaacov do it? He does it because he believes it will work. He is uncertain about the future and he feels a need to change fate through action.  Hashem caters to him by making it a miracle after the act. And Yaacov returns the favor by eliminating the mechanics of what he did (and including Hashem)  in his description of what occurred.
    1. While Yaacov may believe his trick will work – ultimately he does recognize it comes from Hashem – after all, who could he be emulating? This might be why Hashem talks to Yaacov – and perhaps during the day. He has risen since his departure from Canaan.
  6. Lavan refers to “G-d of y’alls father.” What y’all is he referring to? I think this reinforces Lavan’s role. Terach had the same G-d as Avraham. Rivka and Rachel and Leah do. But Lavan has his own gods. He is incompatible with his own family’s G-d.
    1. We always talk about Rachel dying because she hid Lavan’s gods and Yaacov saying whoever hid them would die. But he didn’t say that. He said if Lavan finds them whoever has them will die. But Lavan doesn’t find them. I think Rachel dies for the same reason the Jewish people were evicted. She is a member of the family of Avraham and she is in the land of Avraham and she has idols. Those three ingredients are combustible.
  7. Why is Lavan incompatible? We see why right away. He says all the women and kids are his, which is patently ridiculous given the earlier agreements. But in the next verse, he agrees to a covenant with Hashem as a witness. Laws and covenants have predictability and stability and tradition. They have Kedusha. Lavan, except under threat of force from Hashem, is outside of all of this. When people like this have an influence on society we see what we saw at the beginning of the parshe with the total lack of trust around the well.


  1. Going back to his ‘prayer,’ we saw Yitzchak thinking profoundly and facing uncertainty after having tried to connect where Hagar did. He is seeking some sort of anchor. He looks up and Rivka emerges as the answer to his prayers.  So why does Yitzchak love Esav? I think he loves him because he is so physical. He seems to moored and solid and part-of-this world. Rivka might love Yaacov because he is more like Yitzchak, spiritual. But that is precisely why Yitzchak rejects him.
    1. Yaacov buys the birthright precisely because he has this long-term non-concrete vision of the world. And Esav sells because the here is now is more valuable than an abstract right. But he also buys it because he is unwilling to accept the role Fate seems to have determined for him.
    2. In line with that Fate, we can see Yaacov’s birth as a defining moment. He is destined to be born second – but he fights it from the first instant.
    3. Yitzchak has not emerged from his father’s shadow. He is given a command and a blessing; but not on his own accord. The blessing is because of Avraham. There is no mention of Yitzchak’s own merit. In fact, Hashem says to Yitzchak that nations will ‘bless themselves by your seed.’ But when Avraham receives a similar promise he is told ‘you will be a blessing.’ Yitzchak seems to be skipped.
    4. This is the third mention of Love in Chumash. The first is Avraham for Yitzchak. The second is Yitzchak for Rivka. And the third is Yitzchak for Esav. But this love is different. It says Yitzchak loved Esav *because* of something. By giving a reason, the love is actually qualified. If Esav didn’t have game in his mouth, would he still be loved?
  2. Yitzchak earns his living planting and sowing. It is far more ‘solid’ than shepherding. And he ‘sports’ with his wife – also a more physical description. Yitzchak seems to be seeking this solidity and physicality – and settled feeling. He is fighting his true character.
    1. Yitzchak does the same sister act as his father. But it works out differently. Why? Because Yitzchak alone among the Avot “sports” with his wife. He has one wife, he loves her and he sports with her. It all seems so perfect. Yet they seem to end up with real problems. Why? We’ll get to that.
  3. Yitzchak is driven from Gerar. As he retreats, he names more and more wells. The act of naming is one that describes the state of mind of the namer. When he has fled and is redigging his father’s wells, he is ‘oppressed.’ When he digs his own (contested) wells, he is ‘hindered.’ The third, when he finds his own water, is ‘enlarged.’ Yitzchak, through the process of retreat, sees himself growing. While security might be what he sees, it is actually displacement that strengthens him.
  4. Hashem blesses Yitzchak – again, in his father’s name and not his own. In the eyes of Hashem, he is still lacking something fundamental. And then we see Yitzchak’s making a treaty with Abimelech. Abimelech comes to him, trying to assure there is no bad blood in the eyes of G-d. What has changed? Perhaps Yitzchak’s growth, while not complete, has brought on Abimelech’s concern.
  5. The next day, Yitzchak’s men find water. They name the well Shiba, which can mean ‘complete.’ He has made a treaty, on his own terms, with Abimelech. The Torah says the city (which was already called “Be’er Sheva”) is known as “Be’er Sheva until this day.” Yitzchak’s has made his mark. He has achieved strength in this world. So he decides to bless his material son with a material blessing.
    1. Rebecca’s initial suggestion was just to recognize he was in a blessing-giving mood and arrange for Yitzchak to bring in lamb meat. After all, how could Yitzchak confuse wild game with lamb? Rebecca’s idea is opportunistic, not deceptive. Esav had just married a Canaanite and Rivka wants to put Yaacov forward as a candidate for blessing. But Yaacov seems unwilling to take up the opportunity in a straight-forward (and risky) way.  Yaacov lacks confidence and so he thinks he must ‘pass’ as Esav. This sets up a terrible sequence of events.
    2. Adam Smith talks about three kinds of people: hunter/gatherers, shepherds and farmers. Spiritually, shepherds are the greatest (time to ponder, travel, take provisions with them for warfare, not tied/lashed to crops and material). This is why shepherds always lead the Jewish people. Esav’s intended blessing is the blessing of a farmer. A prayer that he rise above being a nomad (always hand-to-mouth, desperate and not spiritual). But for Yaacov the shepherd, farming is a step down spiritually.
  6. Esav whines and pulls a fit – especially over Yitzchak’s long-term vision serving him so much more effectively. With this, Yitzchak seems to see the error of Esav’s material way. Afterwards, Yitzchak blessing Yaacov and establishes a pattern which we continue to this day; he blesses his child in the name of his father. Note that he withheld this blessing from Esav. Where Avraham had a unique connection to others in his time and prayed to save them, Yitzchak  has a unique connection between generations. He is an anchor in time, not in a time. The act of connecting the chain of generations is perhaps Yitzchak’s greatest legacy both to Kedusha and to ourselves.
    1. Esav’s intended blessing didn’t include the birthright of Avraham. This was always to be saved for Yaacov Perhaps as the lesser brother militarily and materially, Yaacov would have better carried out the spiritual mission of Avraham. After all, Avraham was never promised domination over his relatives – and neither was Yitzchak.
  7. Yitzchak sends Yaacov away after the blessing. By playing an active role in preserving and strengthening the chain, Yitzchak finally earns his place in a blessing of Hashem. In the next parsha Hashem blesses Yaacov as the ‘G-d of Avraham and Yitzchak.’

Chayei Sarah

  1. Why would Ephron offer the burial plot as a gift only to name an excessive price moments later? And why would Avraham reject the gift, but pay the excessive price? What if Ephron (like the Hebronites) genuinely saw Avraham as a Prince of G-d. The gift of land can earn them eternal merit. When Avraham refuses, he does so because he doesn’t want the locals to have that merit. At that point, the locals aren’t selling the land, they are selling the merit of having given Avraham a deal. The price for losing merit – in terms of cold, hard, cash – is very high indeed.
  2. Avraham’s last two major actions are to bury his wife and find his son a wife. These are actions that commemorate the past (so effectively that we remember it) and ensure the future. But they are intertwined. The future is about the land, but he intertwines it to the past (Sarah) and the past is about his family, but he intertwines it to the future (the life of his descendants). The connection to timelessness is a key aspect of Kedusha and these actions ensure the timelessness of Avraham’s life.
    1. Isn’t it odd that the servant determines where Yitzchak goes and who he marries? I’d suggest the servant has the role of Alfred of Batman. His relationship to Yitzchak may well be stronger than Avraham’s. Avraham has the first ‘loving’ relationship with Yitzchak and loving relationships in Torah are often troubled.
  3. There are questions raised about Eliezer’s “test” for Hashem (if she does x, then I know she’s the one). Some say it was forbidden, others say it was permissible. But it wasn’t a test. If we look at the prior reading we see that Hashem’s angel accompanies Eliezer. He’s there to help, and Eliezer is simply telling him what’s needed. And the characteristic that Eliezer is looking for is the one Avraham has – a joy in serving others.
  4. Lavan and Betuel both say “The matter stemmed from Hashem, we can say to you neither good nor bad.” Later, when Lavan is chasing Yaacov, Hashem commands Lavan in the same way. Where does this concept come from? Why can’t he say good? The answer is in Lavan’s introduction: he ran to the man upon seeing the gifts and says ‘come, oh blessed of Hashem.’ When Lavan speaks good, he desecrates Hashem’s name through deceit and greed. When he speaks ill, he desecrates the name of the person he is speaking to.
  5. Here we see Rebecca has many servants, so why was she drawing water? Earlier, it says that “the women would come to draw water.” Not the slaves or maid servants, but the women. This is hard work. Looking forward, Yaacov had to roll a rock off a well which was intended to stop theft, but Rachel came to water the sheep. Moshe has to protect Yitro’s seven daughters because they would be driven from the well on a daily basis, but they would draw water – the source of life. The pattern remains. Holy women draw water. It is indicative of the health of this time and place that all the women go to the well.
  6. Yitzchak’s father dies, Hashem blesses him and he moves back to Be’er Lachai Ro’i. What is this place? It is the first place where Hashem answers a prayer. Not Avraham’s, but Hagar’s. Like Avraham’s prayer, Hagar’s is unspoken. Hashem sees what is needed and provides it. Yitzchak goes here perhaps shattered by the Akeidah. But he has left before meeting Rivkah. Why? His unspoken need was not addressed. And then he is literally thinking profoundly in the face of twilight. He is desperate. He raises up his eyes, perhaps towards heaven, and Rivka appears. His prayer is answered. Why, however, does he move back after his father’s death?
    1. If we look at the four unspoken prayers we see a pattern. Hagar runs from oppression, but really wants status (thus looking down on Sarah). Hashem answers her unspoken (and perhaps unknown) need by promising her Yishmael will be important. Avraham looks at S’dom and is enthralled by the scene of destruction. Hashem recognizes his need and Lot is rescued.  Yitzchak is unmoored from this world and Rivka fills his unknown need. And Yaacov is facing an uncertain future and the ladder fills his need.
    2. In each of these cases the Avot, perhaps unintentionally, open up a pathway in time for prayer. In these cases, they pray as we do – we pray more like Eliezer or Malchitzedek. But they create (perhaps even passively) an avenue for connection to Hashem that continues to exist each morning, afternoon and evening.
    3. My brother Isaiah mentions that Avraham is the only man in Chumash who gets to retire. He passes his test early and is rewarded with a peaceful and long retirement. Others must be challenged and produce their entire lives.
  7. In a flash, we see Yishmael’s descendants: the true offspring of Hagar’s prayer. Yishmael also prays successfully. But he passes in a moment. Why? Perhaps because when he contends it is with his brothers, not with Hashem. Hashem’s relationship with the chosen family, shown with Avraham and reemphasized with Yitzchak, is meant to be more complex.


  1. Avraham promises his guests a morsel, but gives them a feast. Why? My brother Isaiah points out that he sees G-d in the men. He recognizes the divine in others. While I think this is true, I think the point here is a little different. Avraham promises them a morsel, but never says they should eat or drink it. He realizes these are angels. So why make a feast of it, with cream, milk, lamb, cake? It shows his fundamental pleasure in serving the divine. This is Love. And perhaps this is why the angels eat – to reciprocate.
  2. The p’shat has the cadence of negotiation, but not actual evidence of movement by the parties. You could read it as Avraham simply be asking Hashem – how much goodness is enough to save the city? Avraham could be trying to learn about Hashem – unwilling to accept the idea that the righteous can’t save the wicked. Perhaps Avraham stops the questioning at 10 because he too doesn’t see that as enough to rescue the place.
  3. Lot seems like Avraham in so many ways. He offers up his daughters to protect total strangers. But the differences become apparent with the food. Lot serves the man matzoh. This is no feast. Why not? Perhaps Lot is saving their lives out of a sense of duty, Avraham serves his guests out of a sense of joy. Lot is righteous, but he wouldn’t live in S’dom if he sought the joy of service.
    1. Why does Lot offer up his daughters? Because he cares about the men enough to do so. The problem is that he doesn’t care about his own daughters sufficiently. He lacks Sarah – who sees that it important to protect not just the present, but the future.
    2. What is Sodom’s sin? They seem to be extremely productive, but totally lacking in the characteristics that provide security to others. One might argue they have a bit too much Ayn Rand in them.
  4. Avraham explains to Avimelech that he saw no fear of G-d and so he figured he had no protection of G-d.  But he’d just seen S’dom – not a G-d fearing place – crushed and Hashem has already promised a quiet death in old age. So how could he think this. Maybe he didn’t. He made the argument to Sarah, when they went to Egypt – but he didn’t make the argument to her here. It is quite possible that she decided to deploy it here. And he just followed along. Why? We’ll see more about her soon.
    1. Why is Sarah so attractive despite being so old? Sarah was a powerful person – far more forceful with her husband than any wife in Chumash. Perhaps, to men of power like Pharoah and Avimelech, she offered a new kind of relationship.
    2. Lot’s daughters sleep with their father. But it seems they made the right call given what they knew. Perhaps this trace of appropriateness is what enables the elder daughter to be the ancestor of David. The younger one just goes along and doesn’t get this honor.
    3. There is a critical scene of prayer here. The origin of Shacharit, Avraham rising and standing in a place where he had encountered Hashem. But no words are spoken and Hashem does not respond. Instead, Avraham is ‘zochered’ indicating he was suffering an existential crises seeing S’dom destroyed. Hashem saves Lot as a result – but doesn’t tell Avraham anything. It is a lesson to us in prayer. We can stand ‘where’ G-d has been encountered before, and we can pour out our souls. Even if we don’t see the results, and even if Hashem doesn’t speak to us – he may still respond and address our deepest needs.
  5. On one level, Sarah seems to be a hateful and mocking person – oppressing and then driving out Hagar, laughing at the concept of Yitzchak. She is different than Avraham, but an important part of their union. Avraham loves to serve and protect others – he is Chesed. But she stands up for their legacy. Avraham acts in the present and prays for the future. Sarah actively works to secure her legacy and that of her husband. We should learn from her: even with the promises of Hashem, we need to actively defend our future.
  6. Avraham internalizes the lesson of Sarah – and faces Avimelech directly. He is now mixing the love of service with the active self-protection of Sarah. It represents a tremendous growth.
  7. And now we have the Akeidah. Now Avraham is ready for the ultimate test. He has trust, he understands his must protect his legacy, he defends others’ interests even at risk to himself. But now he must show and learn that Hashem is at the core of all of it. Legacy, trust, others interests – all have to be subsumed below one consideration, fear of Hashem. It is an impossible challenge, Avraham can’t make sense of it. But he performs it anyway – calling Hashem’s bluff. And this somehow guarantees his legacy, locks in his trust and shows that his middah of carrying for others is the core attribute that sets him apart.

Please look to the Rosh Hashanna Day One and Rosh Hashanna Day Two for a totally separate analysis of the latter part of this parsha.

Lech Lecha

  1. Lech Lecha starts like an old-fashioned long distance marriage. The bride leaves her land, the land of her birth and her father’s house and goes to a distance place she’ll be shown. The proposal is a good marriage in return. Avram accepts this marriage  just as Rivkah does later. He doesn’t know everything about the ‘groom.’ We think of Avram as a static character – but in fact this is just the first stage in a complex relationship.
  2. We progress from a man willing to fearlessly step into the void on G-d’s command. But then a famine hits, he goes to Egypt and he’s afraid of the Egyptians. How can he not think he’ll be protected? I think this sets up a great dichotomy in Avram – it is the baseline of a repeating pattern he must conquer.
  3. Here we truly set up the character of Lot and Avram. They are referred to as brothers. They aren’t fighting, their shepherds are. But Avram is so concerned about conflict that he’d rather push his ‘brother’ away than fight with him. Note that when it comes time to leave – it is Lot who takes the initiative. He travels Mikedem (which is best translated as ‘first.’ ‘From the East’ doesn’t make sense geographically.Avram has a relationship with another person that we’ve never seen before. We see a hint of it earlier – Avram works with his wife, another relationship first.
  4. When Lot is taken, Avram acts immediately and fearlessly – striking a very powerful force in the night with a tiny army. He is fearless where he takes the initiative. Particularly to protect those he loves. But there is something else that is interesting. Avram has a contractual alliance with two men – a brit. This seems to obligate them to come with him. This existence of this brit highlights the fact that he has no brit with Hashem.
  5. After the war, Avram doesn’t seem to believe Hashem’s promise – he wants more reassurance. Hashem promises him great reward and shows him the stars. And Avram believes. But more happens: he believes and it is counted for tzedek – righteousness. This line reminds me of the early Christians who wanted a society that didn’t need law. It could function on love alone. This seems to be Hashem’s goal – and it is the reason Avram’s belief is treated as tzedek.
  6. But it all changes so fast. Hashem recasts Avram’s leaving of Ur as an act of G-d. And somehow that undermines the belief. Avram demands reassurance. Why? If I look at myself, I am most comfortable with the choices I make. But when I feel like I have no control, I get fearful about what’s coming. Avram thought as Lech Lecha as he own act – but if Hashem did it, then he was actually out of control. It returns him to worry. The result is a very dark brit. A brit preceded by promises of slavery. And a brit that is not timeless. Avram never again asks for reassurance.
    1. Why are the iniquities of the Amorites iniquities critical to the bnei Avram returning? Because Avram’s contractual allies are Amorites. They have a brit with him and that protects their descendants. It is why their iniquity is not complete. But men can’t make timeless britot – only Hashem can. When it expires, their iniquities will be complete.
  7. After the birth of Ishmael we see the great brit – the timeless brit. Avram’s has internalized trust in Hashem with the actual birth of a son. Having children is our most G-dlike act – Shait (Seth) is described as being in Adam’s image using the exact same words as Adam is described as being in Hashem’s image. Avram recognizes that his greatest fear – not being able to emulate Hashem – won’t happen. With this recognition, he takes Hashem into himself – becoming Avraham. This trust, based on Avraham’s procreation, is sealed with the brit milah. We exist because Hashem kept his promise to Avram, but we are Jews because we learned that trust. We show our trust with the brit. But what is (up to this point) his greatest fear has been conquered.

In honor of Josh Black’s ufruf, I added the following comments at lunch:

The earliest action that sets Avraham apart is that he works with Sarah. There is no mention of love – just shared work and shared creation. From an intellectual (not biological) perspective, their marriage is the most important in human history. Avraham was the first man who worked with his wife and this changes everything. In their relationships, Yitzchak and Yaacov have explicit love, but their marriages have far greater troubles. I’m not telling you not to love. After all, this book of Torah never mentions Avraham’s love for Hashem or visa versa. But it is still there and it is mentioned Devarim as the source of our covenant with G-d.

My message is this; may you find shared purpose. A fundamental love with grow from it; an implicit love. The offspring of such a union will far exceed the merely physical and the world will be a better place.