Genesis, the first of the five books of the Torah, is somewhat like a roller coaster ride. It is powerful and grand, yet there is also something so personal and intimate about it and the stories that it tells. What makes it so powerful? Well, one rabbi has a possible answer. He notes: “I can go through every single parsha in Breishit and show the good guy and the bad guy and set them against each other as moral lessons, of good versus evil.” There’s a lot of truth there—think about what we’ve read thus far. We have Adam and Eve VERSUS—the snake. We have Cain versus Abel. We have Avraham VERSUS Pharaoh. We have Jacob VERSUS Esav. And we heard last week of Jacob VERSUS Laban.
So far, it’s pretty easy to see the world in very stark, very black and white terms.
But let’s think a bit about this week’s parsha, Vayeyshev. It’s probably easy to think right off the bat that it’s Joseph VERSUS his brothers. Right? Our children’s stories and the Broadway show might set it up that way, but I think we should work to make this a more complex tale.
Can we really claim that the brothers of Joseph—the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel—are really evil? Can we really think that Yehudah—who gives our people its name—is evil? Of course we recognize that they are flawed, but so is Joseph. These are ALL righteous people. Not perfect, but righteous. This is a good lesson for all of us. What the brothers should have realized is that there is room for all of them, that there is room for them to have differences of opinion and to co-exist without rancor.
People are NOT one-dimensional, thank God. And if we keep that in mind, then we will recognize that we can co-exist and that we can perhaps even learn from each other. And strengthen our community in the process. A community built not on sameness of belief but on a commitment to a vision.
I was privileged to see the play Hamilton a few years ago. There’s a great line in it that reminds me so much of this week’s parsha. At the end of the show, Aaron Burr—spoiler alert: he kills Hamilton—Aaron Burr sings: “I should’ve known that the world is wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”
Joseph’s brothers should have known that, and they were allowed by God to learn that later in life, when they were finally reconciled with their brother.
May that be so with all of us.
Best wishes for a wonderful Thanksgiving and a great start to Chanukah!
In Vayishlach, our Parsha this week, we see that Jacob kind of gets what he deserves. Some might call it karma. Remember that he has stolen his brother’s birthright. He has tricked his father into giving him the blessing that his father had intended for Esav, the son Isaac prefers. Even his name tells us that he’s flawed—YAAKOV can mean HEEL but it can also mean CROOKED.
So, there is no question that Jacob has some growing up to do, even if this is all part of God’s divine plan. But, as we know, he does get his comeuppance. He has to flee from his home. He ends up being tricked by Laban and forced to marry the daughter he does not love. He works for more than 14 years to get the woman of his dreams. And he is finally driven to sneak away—once again—under cover of the night with all his property, his children, and his wives.
So maybe that’s karma. Payback for all the deception he used against his brother and his father. But let’s not forget that there’s another part to this powerful narrative. Remember that, 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.” 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.
Maybe that’s another form of karma. But what happens when Jacob’s name is NO LONGER JACOB, but Israel? After wrestling with the man—and some say that the “man” was really GOD, or really an angel, or perhaps even Jacob wrestling with HIMSELF—what happens after this dramatic contest is that Jacob now knows that he has not been the kind of person worthy of the covenant God promised him. He has been crooked, and he needs to become a new self. He changes.
Is that KARMA? Maybe. But I think that, regardless of what you call Jacob’s transformation, this chapter of Breishit teaches us that people can change. WE CAN CHANGE. We tend to focus on that lesson during the High Holidays, but the lesson itself is right here in this week’s reading. Any one of us can wrestle with our demons and come out a better, less crooked person. That struggle is definitely painful, and Israel has the limp to prove it. The limp that reminds him—and us—of how far we have come, but also of where we have been. The limp that lets us know that change is hard and painful and leaves scars, but it is something that we survive. And, ultimately, it is worth it.
There is a marked contrast set up by two similar events in the book of Genesis, Breishis. We read in Vayatzei about Jacob having a dream that is really a visit from God. He sees a ladder stretching, Midrash tells us, from his home in BeerSheva to the place he was sleeping, Mount Moriah, site of the Akeida of his father and the future home to the Holy Temples of Jerusalem. There are angels ascending and descending from the ladder, proving, the Rabbis tell us, that Jacob was being guarded by heavenly creatures during his travels. The sages tell us that because the first angels are going up the ladder; they must have been with Jacob all along. The ones coming down are arriving to take up the guard duty that is being passed to them from the first set of angels. And, one might ask, what about the time that Jacob was unguarded, the time in between the two sets of angels? At that time, our commentaries state, Jacob was being watched over by God Himself. The message from God is then given to Jacob. It is a reiteration of the covenant given to his father and his grandfather: God will bless the fledgling Jewish nation and will give to them the land upon which Jacob is sleeping. God will be with him wherever he goes.
This metaphor of Divine protection seems so comforting to me. From Jacob’s vision, perhaps we can all conclude that we are all under the shelter of God’s wings.
Another story of a dream is related later, in Parshat Miketz. Pharaoh is sleeping and has an encounter with God. The dream is about seven lean cows and seven fat cows, a warning to the king about impending doom to his country. Of course, as we know, it would take Joseph to interpret the puzzling metaphor.
Besides the obvious differences in tone of each dream, there is another telling difference between the two narratives. When Pharaoh awakened from his sleep, the Torah relates that he went back to sleep. What a departure from Jacob’s reaction to his dream! The Torah tells us in Vayeitzei that when he awakens, he is immediately aware of the Presence of God and he dedicates himself to Divine service. Quite different than turning over and going back to sleep.
The Baal Shem Tov, the first Chassidic master, quoted the Talmud that each day a Heavenly Voice emanates from the mountain of Sinai, urging people to do teshuvah, to return to the Mitzvot. “Of what use is this voice,” asked the Baal Shem Tov, “since no one has ever attested to hearing it?”
He then explained that although the voice is physically inaudible to the human ear, it is heard by the neshama, the soul. The moments that we are moved to do teshuvah and acts of loving-kindness are due to the neshama perceiving the voice from Sinai.
As we see from the two reactions to a call from God, there can be two results. We can ignore the call and go back to the hibernation of ingrained habits, or we can emulate our forefather Jacob and rouse ourselves to a wakened state in order to make positive changes and to take constructive action.
We read in the Torah a number of examples where even the righteous and sometimes the not-so-righteous lie. For example, we know that Rivka encouraged Jacob to deceive his father. She may have believed that she did so because of the prophecy that Jacob would inherit his father’s estate, but it was a lie nonetheless. There are even moments when Adonai lies—for example, he does not tell Abraham the real reason that his wife Sarah laughed at the prophecy that she will bear a child, namely that her husband was so old. These examples suggest that, for us as Jews, lying is a complicated matter and no absolute rules are appropriate. To condemn lying completely might be clearer in many respects but to do so disregards situations where lying might not only be allowed but perhaps even be necessary. As we think about the lies told by Jews and righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust, we would be highly unlikely to criticize their actions. But we also recognize that it’s not always the case that “the end justifies the means.” As always, we are willing to live with some gray!
Rav Yonah, a Talmudic scholar, listed nine different categories of lies, with people cheating in business and causing other people financial loss being the worst.
There was once a man who was a tailor and he took a partner in the business. One day, a man left a jacket for altering. After the customer left, the tailor checked the garment and found $500.00 in one of the pockets. This created a great moral dilemma. Should he tell his partner??
Another form of lying, per Rav Yonah, is “changing minor details when retelling an episode” being wrong but less wrong. The lies he cites are all related to self-aggrandizement and/or cheating other people—promising to do something for someone, knowing that one has no intention of doing so, for example. I would guess that many of us have told some of those lies in some of those categories.
On the other side, Talmudic literature provides us with stories where lying seems to be justified, where it is done for “good reasons.” But how do we interpret those stories, given that they can be understood on so many levels? Practical Halachah gives us more specific guidance. For example, we are allowed to say, “I don’t know” (even when we do) if we’re asked about information that is confidential. A wealthy person can lie to avoid ayin hara or arousing jealousy. And a man is permitted to lie to his wife about the time if she will be late for Shabbat! But even there there are limits—he can only do so if she is procrastinating, not if she is rushing to get ready because that would only increase the pressure on her.
Though there may not be clear answers, these examples as well as the examples from the Torah lead us to think about our own actions and our own willingness (or unwillingness) to tell a direct lie or to deceive others indirectly. Thinking twice about such actions can never be a bad idea! Truth is weighed against doing chesed, with chesed held up as a more desirable concept.
As Jews, we try to emulate God. A clue to God’s qualities is the recitation of God’s midot, attributes, words taken directly from Torah. The listing includes, “gracious, compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and truth, assuring love for a thousand generations.” Here we see that chesed, kindness, has precedence over truth. It can be concluded, then, that being kind is even more important than the telling of the truth.
Let us all treat each other with kindness, even if it means stretching the truth at times!