The celebration of the Chanukkah is confusing. The holiday commemorates winning a war against the Hellenisation of Judaism and removing Greek idolatry from the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet, we celebrate the holiday by recalling the miracle of a miniscule amount of oil which burned in the Temple’s menorah eight times as long as expected. The long lasting oil is minor when compared to the victory over the Greeks and the freedom to rededicate the Temple to God. Why, then, do we use this as the focus of our celebration? A small point in the Joseph story may give us some insight.
In our parasha, Vayeshev, Joseph is his father’s favorite child and a dreamer. He incurs the wrath of his brothers both because of his favored status and because his dreams involve the rest of the family subjugating themselves to him. As a result, his brothers (at least some of them) plot to kill him. Thanks to the interference of Reuben, they instead throw him into a pit. The Torah describes, “The pit was empty; there was no water in it,” (Genesis 37:24). Sandwiched in the middle of a discussion over the placement of the Chanukkah candles, the Talmud (Shabbat 22a) discusses the Joseph’s pit. It notices the apparent redundancy of describing an empty pit as lacking water; if it is empty, it of course has no water. The Talmud concludes that the pit must have only been empty of water but not of other dangers found in a pit, such as snakes and scorpions. Amazingly, then, Joseph survives this pit, though it is full of dangerous creatures, channeling his inner Indiana Jones. Midrash Tanchuma (Vayechi 17) reifies the miraculous nature of Joesph’s survival in the pit. It teaches that when Joseph returned from burying Jacob (have no fear, the death does not happen for another 3 parshiyot), he stopped by the same pit and recited the traditional blessing said over a place where one experienced a miracle.
The Meshekh Chokhmah (Meir Simcha, 19th-20th Century Latvia) notices an issue with Joseph reciting a blessing over the pit. The main miracle experience by Joseph was not surviving the pit; the miracle was that as a foreigner sold into slavery in Egypt, he rose to second-in-command and saved the country and the greater region from a famine. Being saved from scorpions is impressive, but it pales in comparison to Joseph’s rise to power. So too, he notices, the miracle of the oil on Chanukkah pales in comparison to the military victory. Yet, in both cases, the commemoration occurs over a relatively small event. The Talmud recognizes this Chanukkah-Joseph relationship by placing its explanation of Joseph’s pit in between discussions regarding Chanukkah lights.
The Meshekh Chokhmah solves his challenge by explaining that a miracle is only a miracle if it is actually a deviation from nature. While the Channukah war and Joseph’s rise to power were incredibly improbable, they are not supernatural. However, oil lasting for eight times its expected duration or a person surviving a pit of dangerous creatures is a supernatural event.
However, I am not convinced that surviving dangerous creatures or oil lasting longer than it should is any more supernatural than Joseph’s ascendency or the Maccabean conquest. Instead, I would like to suggest my own explanation of the Meshekh Chokhmah’s question as to why these two miracles become focused on small events which barely touch on the larger, improbable events surrounding them. To do that, I want to consider another holiday in which we commemorate a large miracle by, instead, focusing on a rather small one.
That other holiday is Passover. Passover is a holiday about God’s triumph over Pharaoh and removing us from slavery into freedom, including miraculous plagues and a split sea. Yet, we celebrate by recalling the time during the tenth plague where, with chaos floating all around us, we were able to sit comfortably in our homes and eat a meal in praise of God. We do not even celebrate the plague itself, which was a deviation from nature, as much as we celebrate the safety from God’s miracle. Because, in the end, God performs great miracles not for the sake of the miracle, but for the sake of providing us with the ability to have security and comfort. Which is what the Maccabees received from the small amount of light the were able to cast while cleaning the Temple. It was also gifted to Joseph in the safety he received as he sat among the scorpions and snakes with an uncertain future. Hopefully, it will be gifted to us from God during the uncertain times in which we live (though I am unsure anyone has lived in certain times).
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום and Happy Chanukkah!
I would like to thank two people I do not know, Efrat Gunin and Josh Waxman, who are in a Facebook group with me. They took the time to help me work out some of the ideas in this d’var. If the ideas are good, it was all them. If not, this d’var is my responsibility.
The past few weeks have seen many tragic events on a global scale, as well as some on a personal scale for my family. As people have responded to these with commemorations and eulogies, I have noticed three types of responses. The first is to really experience the tragedy of the situation. I walk away from these feeling like the speaker truly honored the pain of the moment, but I also leave feeling lost, without a place to turn next. The sorrow seems unending. Another approach has been to strike a tone of hope and meaning. This approach makes me feel uplifted, but also guilty, in that this approach uses the tragedy rather than honoring it. However, sometimes a middle path is struck, honoring the suffering but still presenting hope in it. In our parasha, Vayishlach, Jacob takes this path in naming his son, Benjamin.
Benjamin is the second son to his mother, Rachel, and the last son born to Jacob. Tragically, the birth kills Rachel. Before dying, she names him: Ben Ōni. Jacob, however, calls the child Binyamin (which becomes Benjamin in English translation). Up to this point, the twelve sons and one daughter (of which we know) born to Jacob were named by their mothers, with a potential exception of Levi (this is it’s own d’var). Benjamin’s birth is the first instance where Jacob gives one of his children a name contrary to the wishes of the mother. This exception is even more shocking because Rachel was Jacob’s most beloved wife and we would expect him to carefully follow her desires. However, when looking more closely at interpretations around the two names, we might realize that Jacob actually does honor Rachel’s wishes and pain, even as he gives his youngest son a name infused with hope.
Rashi explains that Ben Ōni, the name Rachel gives Benjamin means, “son of my pain.” Linguistically, the word ōn is connected with mourning in several places in the Bible. This name fits the difficulty of his birth. It also contrasts greatly with Jacob’s name for him, which means “son of my right-hand,” the Hebrew yamin meaning “right-side.” For most people (not the author of this piece), the right hand represents strength. Rashi, however, avoids interpreting Jacob’s naming as opposed to Rachel’s. He explains that “right” in many Biblical sources means “south”, assuming the narrative voice is facing the Jordan river from within Israel. Rashi explains that Benjamin was the only child of Jacob’s who was born in Canaan, which is south of Aram Naharaim, the home of Laban and the birthplace of the other eleven sons. Therefore, Jacob’s name for his youngest son is, “son of the south.”
I have, initially, two issues with Rashi’s explanation. First, Jacob still denies Rachel’s wishes for her son by giving him a name with different meaning than she did, albeit similar-sounding and not as contrary as “son of strength.” Considering we have a principle that it is a mitzvah to uphold the words of the dead (eg see Bavli Gittin 14b), why, then, did Jacob deny Rachel’s wishes? Second, there is another way to translate the Ben Oni to make it match the meaning of Binyamin. While ōn in Hebrew can mean pain, it can also mean strength (there are a series of roots in Hebrew with can take either of two, opposite meanings). Why does Rashi not offer this interpretation of Ben Ōni? In that case, the two names would have exactly the same meaning, and Jacob would not have ignored Rachel’s dying request.
Moreover, the idea that the two names both mean, “son of strength,” makes sense of a midrash in Genesis Rabbah. It teaches that the name Rachel gives to Benjamin is Aramaic, while Jacob gives the name in “the Holy Tongue,” meaning Hebrew. This mirrors the naming of border stones in last week’s parasha, where Laban, Rachel’s father, gives an Aramaic name and Jacob responds by naming it with a Hebrew translation.
But perhaps there is something deeper to Rashi’s explanation. “Son of the south” can have a similar meaning to “son of strength” since the land of Israel, the south, is where Jacob really comes to power--by both besting an angel in hand-to-hand combat, as well as reconciling with his brother, Esau. Running with the midrash’s interpretation, Jacob still honors Rachel’s naming of Benjamin. He does so by giving power to her original Aramaic, but choosing a Hebrew translation for it which interprets it with a different though sensible translation. He knows that Rachel gave her child a name which reflects suffering. Jacob does not deny her this name; Jacob’s time in Canaan, in the “south,” will never be wholly powerful. He continues to be a stranger in that land, afraid of his brother, afraid of the people of Shechem, and eventually feeling food insecurity. But he also reinterprets the suffering - which he too must have felt, having lost his beloved wife - by giving it hope, naming Benjamin both “child of the south” and “child of strength.” But it also does not cover up Rachel’s suffering.
In some ways, Benjamin represents hope for Rachel as well, even in the midst of her suffering. Her first son, Joseph, was named because of her hope, “may God add another son for me,” (Genesis 30:24). Benjamin is the fulfillment of Joseph’s name. Here, her name could be understood as a focus on both her suffering of childbirth and her strength of giving birth a second time. And Benjamin’s descendants, Esther and Mordechai, will show that strength during suffering many years later.
If the name Jacob gives to Benjamin is a translation of Rachel’s Aramaic into the “Holy Tongue,” it might explain what it means to speak the “Holy Tongue,” to call Benjamin, Bin Yamin as opposed to Ben Ōni. That is to, in one fell swoop, use language which honors pain while at the same time giving hope. For that is often what it means to be a Jew; no matter how dire the situation we both respect the difficulty, but to continue to hope for a better world. May we all continue to pay honor to the pain in our lives but find language to infuse that honor with hope for a better future.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, VaYetze, is a single story about Jacob and his uncle and father-in-law Laban. The story, which involves marital and financial deception on both sides, ends when Laban pursues a fleeing Jacob and the two agree to make peace. They solidify their peace by erecting a mound of stones marking the line of their territories. Each names the mound, although the names mean the same, but each is in the namers native tongue. Laban the Aramean calls the mound, “Y’gar Sahaduta,” and Jacob, “Gal-ed.” Both names mean, “mound of testimony.” With this stroke, the Torah introduces the language of Aramaic, a language which will take up large portions of some later books in Tanakh, will serve as a court language in the later Persian Empire, and will be the main language of Jews in Israel and Babylonia from the end of the Second Temple until the middle ages. This sudden introduction of Aramaic into Torah is striking; until now we might have assumed that Laban and Jacob spoke the same language. Ironically, in erecting a physical and linguistic barrier, the Torah breaks down the barrier of being a Hebrew-only text.
Unsurprisingly, some of our texts show nervousness around Aramaic and especially its introduction to the Torah. Rav Yehuda of the Talmud suggests that one should not make requests of God in Aramaic. In his view, the ministering angels do not recognize Aramaic, and will not be able to attend to our prayers or carry them to God (Talmud Shabbat 12b). The Rosh Teomim (18th Century Poland) explains that this is because the angels consider Aramaic an improper language, presumably because it is other and, specifically, not Hebrew. In fact, the Talmud may be claiming that not just Aramaic, but any non-Hebrew language is unacceptable to the ministering angels. This rejection of outside culture is made poignant by later texts such as the 15th century Spanish Galya Raza, which claims that the Israelite descent into Egyptian slavery is punishment for Jacob permitting Laban to introduce Aramaic into the Torah. As uncomfortable as this might sound, it is understandable. After all, the Israelites are a small group trying to hold on to their uniqueness. By being a Hebrew, an Ivri, one from the other side of the river, we, as inheritors of the Israelite tradition, express ourselves in our differences. One major avenue for doing so is by holding fast to our language.
In the Talmud of the land of Israel, Rabbi Yonatan takes a different approach to foreign languages. Using five languages as examples (Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Assyrian), he associates each language with its own strength (Yerushalmi Sotah 7:2). Each language, and thereby, one can assume, culture, is unique in its strengths, but none is necessarily better than another. Yet there is also no need for any of these languages or cultures to give up their individual identity. Our identity as a culture is maintained by taking pride in its unique strengths, but we are compelled to appreciate other cultures for their strengths as well. Each culture and language, though, may maintain its identity without any mixing.
There is a third Rabbinic approach to the inclusion of Aramaic in the Torah (and other books of the Bible) which transforms Aramaic from the language of the other into something holy to be embraced. In this approach, no language or culture is inherently bad; its integration within one’s own culture transforms the outside culture into a part of the inside culture, making it desirable. A midrash in Genesis Rabbah (72) explains that, since God included Aramaic in the Bible, like Hebrew, it must be a holy language. The inclusion of outside culture into ours can be seen not as a takeover of our culture, but rather an enhancement; in becoming part of our culture and language, it gains a new meaning particularly to us, in the context of our own uniqueness.
We see three approaches to the inclusion Aramaic into the Torah: disgust, appreciation at a distance, and open embrace. Of these three, Jacob seems to accept take at least two of them. On the one hand, he sets up a strong boundary between him and Laban, similar to the approach that sees the inclusion of Aramaic in the Torah as unquestionably negative. In doing so, he solidifies his own culture as different. At the same time, he willingly allows Laban to name the boundary first, knowing that the name will be in Aramaic. And on the boundary, he shares a meal with Laban, the ultimate in cultural exchange and mutual hospitality. He even chooses a Hebrew name for the boundary that is merely a translation of Laban’s, thus giving Aramaic a prominent place in Hebrew culture. Whether or not he also takes the third approach--appreciating Aramaic at a distance--is not clear to me, but seems likely, considering the years he spent in Laban’s household and his marriage to Laban’s daughters.
When we figure out how to interact with other cultures while maintaining our own, I think that all three approaches are necessary. We would also do well to take seriously the opinion of the Tosafot (medieval French commentators). They challenge the opinion of Rav Yehuda in the Talmud, that angels do not speak Aramaic. How can it be, they ask, that angels understand the hearts of people but do not understand a particular language? Their question is more than just a challenge of logic; it is a challenge about what culture and language are fundamentally. Culture and language are expressions of something deeper which is shared among all people. While the expressions are different and important, there is always something more fundamental that is shared by us all as part of the human experience.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, Toldot, is almost exclusively about rivalry. Some of it concerns the rivalry between Avimelekh, the King of Grar, and Isaac. But mainly, it concerns the rivalry between the twins Esau and Jacob. This rivalry begins in utero: the two siblings fight while still inside Rebecca and even struggle to be born first. While still pregnant, Rebecca is told a prophecy that two nations are gestating inside of her; the nation coming from one will be stronger than the other. The prophecy ends with an ambiguous phrase which can either be read as, “And the older will serve the younger,” or, “And the older the younger will serve,” (Genesis 25:23).
In Rabbinic literature, Esau represents the primary ancestor of Rome, while Jacob, of course, represent the primary ancestor of Israel. Therefore, the early Rabbis view the rivalry of Esau and Jacob as a paradigm for the struggles between Jews and Romans in first and second century, Roman-ruled Judea. One Talmudic teaching (Megillah 6a) understands the prophecy to mean that whenever either Rome or Israel is successful, the other must be in tatters. Hence the destruction of Jerusalem at the height of Roman rule.
This Rabbinic understanding of the rivalry between Esau and Jacob is understandable and matches both their and our reality. Rival powers are rarely able to coexist; one must be made weak for the other to become strong. Neither can live while the other survives.
However, the Rabbis also imagine a different model of this rivalry. This rivalry is exemplified by two Talmudic characters: Rabbi Yehuda the Prince (known simply as Rabbi) and Antoninus. (Some hypothesize that Antoninus was one of the several Caesars who used that name, although it is difficult to confirm this fact.) The Talmud teaches us that when Rebecca is told there are two nations inside of her, we should understand it not as, “nations” (goyim) but as “exalted ones,” (geyim). The exalted ones were Rabbi and Antonius, both of whom were such great personalities, exemplified by their keeping fresh vegetables on their tables for visitors, even during winter. The Rabbis view constant willingness to accept guests as one of the greatest personality traits.
The Talmud teaches us about philosophical debates between Rabbi and Antonius (eg Sanhedrin 91a-b). These are not typical debates where one party always wins or the Rabbi outsmarts the non-Jewish authority. Instead, each is just as likely to convince the other. In some cases, not only does Rabbi accept Antoninus’ arguments, but Rabbi then finds a Biblical verse to support his intellectual rival’s claim. And when Antonius wants to pass on power to his son, he actually consults Rabbi (Avodah Zarah 10a).
In fact, the relationship between Rabbi and Antonius is so unusual, we have to wonder how they were able to turn an historical and cultural rivalry into friendship. How could two people successfully forge a cultural and philosophical divide into a relationship? The answer might lie in two other rival personalities in our parasha, Isaac and Avimelekh. Avimelekh banishes Isaac from the land of Grar, but later comes with his retinue to visit Isaac. Isaac is astounded, asking, “Why did you come to me, you despise me and sent me away from you” (Genesis 26:27). Avimelekh responds that he noticed that God is with Isaac. The two form a pact and Avimelekh leaves Isaac in a state of peace. The midrash (Sifrei Devarim) learns from this that rebuke can actually lead to peace, since Isaac rebukes Avimelekh for his former treatment of Isaac, and it ends with a pact of peace.
Of course, as the same midrash acknowledges, rebuke can also lead to a fraught relationship, which is why Jacob, Joshua, Samuel, and David all wait until their deathbeds to rebuke their children. So how was it successful in the case of Isaac and Avimelekh? Because Avimelekh saw that God was with him. How was God with him? In that Isaac’s behaviour was Godly--he modeled how to act appropriately. Avimelekh saw this and realized that, even though he might have had disagreements with Isaac, Isaac was an upstanding person from whom he needed to learn and with whom he needed to have a relationship.
Which, perhaps, is what turned Rabbi and Antoninus from cultural rivals to friends--friends who disagreed but were willing to learn and be convinced by one another. The two noticed that they were both upstanding people who both behaved similarly in accepting guests at their tables, both serving dignified food year round. Perhaps they heard about one another and, despite their differences, despite their historical hatred, were willing to take the risk to create a relationship. And, likely, that relationship contained some tense moments of rebuke and disagreement. But because of their mutual respect for one another’s behavior, because they saw God as being with the other, they kept an open mind when disagreeing, sometimes becoming convinced, but always remaining friends.
The other day I asked my teacher, Art Green, how we can have conversations with those whom we disagree. He told me the first step is modelling proper behavior. When a rival sees someone with whom they disagree is also a person of upstanding character, they often cannot help but open their hearts and minds. Like Avimelekh, they may even take the first step in creating a relationship.
May we all learn how to be like Isaac and Avimelekh, like Rabbi and Antoninus. Let us model how to behave in the world and then, perhaps, we can befriend those with whom we disagree. May we meet one another in disagreement but leave with a pact of peace. A pact of peace which, my friend Sasha Batz Stern points out, is not a pact based on agreeing on issues, but a pact based on a shared commitment to behaving properly in the world.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, Chayye Sarah, begins and ends with acts of kindness around burial. Death prompts kindness. The parasha begins with Abraham searching for a burial plot for Sarah. It ends with the formerly estranged Isaac and Ishmael coming together to bury Abraham. The middle of the parasha is also a story of incredible kindness: Rebecca greets Abraham’s servant with the sort of greeting all of us likely desire - and likely rarely get - when entering a new space or location. The two acts of kindness bookending our parasha are laudable, but likely not surprising. Death is an act which tends to make people more conscious of their behavior and act with kindness towards one another. However, it is the act of kindness separated from loss and grief, which truly define who we are and make us worthy. Here Rebecca excels and becomes a model for the Jewish people and our relationship with God.
After the death of Sarah, Abraham approaches the people of Chet to purchase a burial plot for Sarah. Until the exchange between Abraham and the people of Chet and then Ephron, no person in Breishit is referred to as “adoni,” meaning, “my master.” In Abraham’s negotiations for a burial plot, he is called, “adoni,” three times. Abraham, who is a stranger in the land, is called, “my master,” by the locals. The midrash in the Mekhilta (Pascha 18) explains that the land of Canaan was named after the Canaanites because of the kindness the children of Chet - who are Canaanites - showed Abraham, particularly in referring to him as, “adoni.” Since this is the first use of that term and also the first public burial we have in the Torah, I assume the two go together: the death of Abraham’s wife prompts extra kindness.
The death of Abraham prompts unusual kindness as well. Ishmael and Isaac, who up until now seem to have been apart and non-interactive, come together to bury Abraham. The Rabbis teach us that Ishmael repented for his previous sins (though what those sins might have been is itself confusing). This explanation displays shock that Ishmael and Isaac, of all people, would come together. Perhaps, like the generosity of the people of Chet in the wake of Sarah’s passing, death motivates kindness between brothers who were previously estranged.
Which is where most of us, Jews and non-Jews, stand one week after the horrific murder at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. At the moment, we are showing incredible kindness to one another. I am moved by the massive number of people who came to the memorial on Monday night and the incredible words of the many speakers. That night, ministers of different cloths and politicians put aside their differences to show solidarity. In this, we all followed the model of the people of Chet, of Isaac and Ishmael. It is a laudable model. I wish everyone in the world would show such kindness in response to tragedy.
But we need a model for continuing to show kindness one week from now, one month from now, one year from now when the pain of Pittsburgh begins to fade. For this our parasha presents us with Rebecca. Abraham’s servant comes to Aram Naharaiim, knowing no one and praying to God for a person to show him incredible kindness. Rebecca arrives and shows the exact kindness he requests: she offers water to him and his camels. She goes further: her offer of water to the camels comes unprompted. She does not walk back and forth to the well; she runs. She never asks the servant to help her. The servant never reveals his name and does not reveal his origin until after she has invited him to her family for room and board. The servant responds to Rebecca’s kindness by giving her gifts, including two gold bracelets weighing ten shekel. The Rabbis see these two bracelets and their weight of ten units as an allusion to the two Tablets and the Ten Commandments engraved on them (Genesis Rabbah 60:6). In response, several commentaries attempt to explain why Rebecca, as opposed to any of our other ancestors, is given a gift that alludes to the central piece of a contract between God and Israel.
Perhaps Rebecca receives a gift which alludes to the Ten Commandments because she most deeply embodies the characteristic necessary for receiving the Ten Commandments. Israel merits receiving the Torah (and the revelation at Sinai) because, unlike the other nations, it accepts the text unconditionally without reading it first (Mekhilta Chodesh 5). Israel willingly creates a relationship with God without preconditions or asking questions. Similarly, Rebecca creates a relationship with Abraham’s servant with no questions asked or preconditions. This is the ultimate kindness, and it exemplifies the quality necessary to inherit Torah.
Which is what we need to show one week, one month, one year, and one generation from the tragedy at Tree of Life. Let us not only show the kindness we have shown already, the kindness of Ishmael, Isaac, and the people of Chet immediately following death. Let that kindness lead us to the kindness of Rebecca, kindness shown with no preconditions and which appears both at times of good and times of bad. Kindness which makes us truly worthy of Torah and God’s covenant.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום