GOODBYE AND HELLO — Vayeytzey – Gen. 28:11- 32:3 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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GOODBYE AND HELLO — Vayeytzey – Gen. 28:11- 32:3 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The very first word of this week’s Torah reading sparked a fascinating comment from Rashi. That word is vayeytzey, “he went out.” The Torah tells us that Jacob left Beer Sheba and went to Haran. Since the Torah does not waste words, Rashi points out that what needed to be written here was only “Jacob went to Haran.” To go to Haran he had to leave Beer Sheba, didn’t he? So why do we read “Jacob went out of Beer Sheba?”

Rashi’s answer teaches a lesson. Namely, ”when a righteous man lives in a city, he is its glory, he is its guiding light, he is its honor. Once he departs, glory departs, light departs, honor departs.”

Certainly a city will miss its most honored resident, male or female. Rashi compares Jacob’s exit to that of Naomi and Ruth, mentioned in the book of Ruth 1:7. To which the Midrash adds the comment of Rabbi Azariah: “The merit of one righteous person is incomparable to the merit of two righteous people.” Depending on the individual, our decision to stay where we live, or to go somewhere else, can affect not only us but the place itself. Moving has various results.

An old Jimmy Durante comedy number went like this: “Did ya ever have the feelin’ that ya wanted to go, and still had the feelin’ that ya wanted to stay?” I would guess that Jacob himself had both feeings. And perhaps some people in Beer Sheba missed him and some did not. But he had very little choice. If he stayed in Beer Sheba he was in mortal danger from his violent brother Esau. And while Haran was no bed of roses, given the machinations of his tricky prospective father-in-law Laban, it did offer opportunities.

So he went. And starting from that trip, he succeeded in building the future of our people. Later generations had equally momentous choices to make. The Immigrant Generation – our parents and grandparents – had to leave places where they lived much longer than Jacob lived in Beer Sheba, and take a much longer trip than the few days to Haran. They left countries where they lived for centuries and travelled by land and sea over half the world to America. Whether it was Beer Sheba or Bialystok, maybe the places they left missed them; maybe they missed those places. And maybe not. And whether in Haran or Hartford, like our father Jacob, they built a brighter future. For us.


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BROTHER? BEWARE – Toldos –Gen. 25:19—28:9—by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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BROTHER? BEWARE – Toldos –Gen. 25:19—28:9—by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rivalry among siblings is nothing new, as we all know. We find some classic examples of it in the Torah. Starting with two-son conflicts like Cain and Abel which leads to humanity’s first recorded murder, we proceed to those negative contacts that are only slightly more subtle. A few weeks ago we read about the birth of Ishmael who is described in advance as a “wild man, with his hand on all and every hand against him.” When his little half-brother Isaac is born, Ishmael can only laugh at him. Of course, it’s no joke when their father Abraham performs the first bris-milah – the ritual circumcision. Isaac is just 8 days old – the age at which Jewish boys still enter the covenant physically. But Ishmael is a maturing 13 years of age, and has to undergo the operation on the same day. Many of his descendants still do. (Could that be what makes them so mean?)

This week, another pair of brothers interacts. These are Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau. As described in the Book of Genesis, they fight their way into the world, as Esau manages to exit first from Rebecca’s womb with Jacob, still scrappy, holding onto his brother’s heel. Now those few seconds of seniority give Esau a distinct advantage, as the two brothers mature and their father is getting old. That advantage is the birthright, giving the first-born a double portion of the inheritance, and a special place of honor in the family. Throughout his life Esau is known as an outdoorsman and expert hunter, while Jacob is called “a simple man, dwelling in tents,” interested in farming and learning. Their climactic scene comes when Jacob has just prepared his own lunch – a reddish stew made of lentils – and in dashes Esau from the field, tired and hungry. Apparently he did not bag any game today. He takes one look at the pot on Jacob’s stove and says “Give me some of that red, red stuff. I’m about to pass out!” Jacob agrees — if Esau will trade his birthright for it.

“Here I am, dying of hunger,” says Esau. “What do I need with a birthright?” So he agrees.

Jacob serves him bread and a bowl of pottage. The next five words tell Esau’s action, and serve to give us what one rabbi called the portrait of a boor. Here are Esau’s five words:

Va-yo-khal – He ate.

Va-yeysht – He drank.

Vayokkom – He stood up.

Va-yey-lekh – He left.

Va-yi-vez – He despised [the birthright].

Hardly an example to look up to. Note what this compact narrative does NOT include: (1) Esau does not thank his brother for the meal; of course, why should he? He’s paying for it. (2) Esau also does not pronounce a blessing when he eats.

We know what he eats, but what does he drink? Well, a respectable host like Jacob can be assumed to provide a cup of wine with a meal, even though the Torah does not mention it.

He stands up and walks out and never even says goodbye. And he despises the birthright and the whole process because, as one commentator writes, he saw no wealth in his father’s house, so what does he care about an inheritance? Double portion, sure. Twice nothing? He got his lentil stew. Never mind the birthright.

Every father and mother from the time of Isaac and Rebecca onward can face similar problems. We would all choose to have children who get along well, help each other and hopefully like each other. It doesn’t always happen. In the case of the family in our Torah portion, the parents themselves took some steps that we might learn from.

Isaac preferred Esau who brought his father good venison. As his eyes dimmed, so did Isaac’s discretion about his two sons and their contrasting personalities.

Rebecca loved Jacob because he spent time with her in the tent. So, being somewhat of a super-mom, she insisted on Jacob disguising himself as Esau to fool his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Then she bundled him up and sent him to her brother’s house to escape Esau’s threat, and incidentally to find two wives.

If their parents never took sides, would Jacob and Esau eventually draw together? The reality is, of course, that we’ll never know. Jealousy and conflict split families ever since those days. Blessed are the families that can avoid such a split. Blessed are the heirs who do not squabble over their inheritance. Blessed are the siblings who can accept each other for what they are, not what #1 thinks #2 ought to be. And blessed are the parents who have the good sense to treat their children equally.

Let’s try to make each of our families one of them.

Isaac Blessing Jacob Gioachino Assereto, 1640

Isaac Blessing Jacob
Gioachino Assereto, 1640

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A HINT TO THE WISE – Khayey Sarah – Gen.23:1 – 25:18, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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A HINT TO THE WISE – Khayey Sarah – Gen.23:1 – 25:18, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Many and various comments circulate about this week’s reading. Called Khayey Sarah – “The life of Sarah” – it starts, not with the life of Sarah but with her death. Says the Torah, she lived “100 years, and 20 years and 7 years.” Why not just say 127 years? Because, says Rashi’s classic commentary, we learn hereby that she was as innocent at the age of 100 as she was at 20 (since Heavenly punishment is not meted before age 20), and as beautiful at 20 as she was at 7. In fact, she is the only woman whose age is recounted in the Torah. The mother of our people, she gave her name to countless girls of many nations ever since.

Final rites for someone as important as Sarah occupy a good section of this reading. Abraham owns no land. He needs to secure a gravesite. And to do so, he goes to Hebron and negotiates with the Hittites. The corner of the field he wants belongs to a man named Ephron. It contains the Cave of Machpelah, a dignified and appropriate gravesite. That cave is still a sacred location and burial place today. Our enemies destroyed the roadside graves of Rachel and Joseph. But they took over Machpelah. As far as we know, our patriarchs and our other matriarchs still lie there. But visiting that site now requires special arrangements.

Our reading this week takes us to the day this cave was acquired. We witness Abraham and Ephron negotiating over the purchase.

Now this is the Middle East, and Abraham and Ephron are both described as economically successful. What kind of bargain will they strike? We know Abraham can bargain. He even bargained with the Almighty over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. How will he approach this deal?

He goes to the tribal chiefs, presumably assembled at the gate of the city. There he represents himself as a stranger and sojourner among the Hittites. He asks their understanding of his need to bury his wife. And he offers to buy a gravesite for cash. The tribal chiefs reply with flattery. They call him a prince, and invite him to select the choicest of their burial sites, free of charge. He insists that he will pay to purchase the land, and asks for a corner of Ephron’s field. For the full price.

At this point Ephron speaks up. “No, my lord, hear me out. I give you the field and the cave that is in it. In the sight of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.”

This causes Abraham to rise and bow before the am ha-aretz, the people of the land. Again he declares he will pay for the field.

Ephron answers: “Listen, my lord. A piece of land worth 400 shekels – what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”

The next sentence is, in more ways than one, the payoff. “Abraham heard Ephron.” And here we see Abraham the bargainer weighing out 400 shekels of silver, oveir lasokheir – merchants’ standard, acceptable tender. He doesn’t even offer 350, even though the “piece of land” is hardly worth the asking price. As the Hertz commentary points out, the contemporary Code of Hammurabi set the annual wages of a working man at 6 to 8 shekels, a long way from 400. All the high-toned Hittite declarations of respect and sympathy and generosity – forgotten. Pay up.

Of all the commentaries on this reading, perhaps the most telling is a 3-word statement by the Rashbam: Dai lakhakima bir’miza –“ To the wise, a hint is enough.” I heard you, Ephron; you said 400, right? Hold out your hand…


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LAUGHTER AND A LIE – Va-yey-ra – Gen. 18-22, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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LAUGHTER AND A LIE – Va-yey-ra – Gen. 18-22, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s Torah story finds Abraham to be a gracious host, welcoming three strangers to his tent, and refreshing them with a midday meal, aided by his wife Sarah, and by their servant. The servant is not named in the text, just called “his boy” and might or might not refer to his son Ishmael who is 13 years old at this point.

The guests accept the invitation to rest and to eat. They eat cheese and milk, then a meal of freshly-slaughtered and cooked calf-meat – clearly a dinner for human beings, even though these guests are celestial. Yes, angels, bringing a message from Heaven. They dignify Abraham by accepting his hospitality, and then they deliver their message which is for both him and Sarah.

“Where is Sarah your wife?”

“She is here in the tent.”

“I will return at the proper time (literally “the time of life” – that is, 9 months) and Sarah will have a son.”

Well, Sarah doesn’t miss a word. She is right behind them in the entrance to the tent. Hearing this prediction, she laughs silently. She is pushing 90, and as the Torah tells us “Sarah no longer had the way of women,” in other words, no period for a long time now. In last week’s reading, Abraham also got the promise of a son by Sarah and it struck some laughter out loud from him – va-yitz-khak — since he was 99 and recovering from his self-inflicted circumcision, and could hardly accept the idea of becoming a new father.

The Heavenly guest doesn’t bring up the subject directly with Sarah, but he asks Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh?… Is anything too hard for G-d?” At which Sarah speaks up – with a deliberate lie – because she is afraid:

“I didn’t laugh!”

Lo, kee tzakhakt — No, you did laugh.”

The word for laughter is unmistakable. And it becomes part of the name of the son neither parent expects. Isaac – Yitzkhak. Literally, “he will laugh.”

We will learn more about this long-awaited son in future chapters. His name, ever since then a name borne by countless Jewish men, still echoes his parents’ laughter. Significantly, however, nothing more is made of his mother’s lie. Yitzkhak – “he will laugh” – can still cheer the man who bears the name. But no one is named Y’khakhesh – “he will lie!” Our Torah allows for human frailty, even Sarah’s denying laughter because of plain fear. Sarah remains our honored mother, the first Jewish mother in history, and so symbolically the mother of all converts, the welcomed New Jews. We forgive her fear, and honor her name.


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LOTS OF “LOT”S – Ex. 12-17 – Lekh l’kha — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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LOTS OF “LOT”S – Ex. 12-17 – Lekh l’kha — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s Torah reading includes parts of a story that is spread out over several chapters of the Book of Genesis. It is the story of Abraham’s relationship with his nephew Lot. Lot tagged along with Abraham and Sarah in their early travels to Canaan and Egypt and back. Along the way he shared in Abraham’s success, acquiring herds and flocks, to the point where a fight broke out between their shepherds because “the land could not support them to dwell together (Gen.13:6)”. So Abraham gives Lot a choice: “If you go to the left, I will go to the right, and if right I will go left. We are brothers.”

So Lot picks the fertile Jordan valley and settles in Sodom. Yes, the famous Sodom, the city that gave its name to one form of sexual perversion. That is not all. Next week we will read about other evils that condemned Sodom. But for now, Lot sees a chance for more prosperity and moves to it.

Then comes a war between nine of the ancient city-states – four local kings against five. One of those five was the king of Sodom. His side was losing. The Big Four captured his people – including Lot.

When Abraham hears the news, he assembles his forces and goes after the conquering tribesmen, vanquishes them and rescues Lot and all the captured prisoners and their possessions. At the victory party, the king of Sodom offers Abraham an unusual deal: “Give me the people and you take the spoils.” In other words, I’ll take Lot; you take the loot. Unexpected generosity, particularly in the Middle East, right? Well, Abraham turns him down. “I swore to the Creator of Heaven and Earth, that nothing from a thread to a shoe-string will I take from you. You will never be able to say ‘I made Abram rich.’” In fact he had already returned Lot and his people to their homes. That was his only objective.

What about Lot? Was he some kind of tzadik, some great character that inspired Abraham to risk life and fortune for his sake? Not hardly. Our commentators indicate that he never stopped his shepherds from stealing pastureland and property from farmers in their neighborhood; that’s why they got into trouble with Abraham’s men who were behaving honestly. And coming next week is the great episode of Lot’s adventures during and after the destruction of Sodom where he was living with his wife and two daughters. Remember that one?

The Divine messengers arrive in Sodom to warn Lot of impending calamity. He invites them to spend the night at his house. That night a gang of Sodomites threatens to break down his door to get at the visitors, and Lot offers the gang his daughters instead. True, with Sodomites that probably wouldn’t appease them. But the Divine messengers step in and blind the gang members nearest the door, discouraging the attack. Then they spirit Lot and his family out of town. As they climb the nearest hill, Sodom is destroyed by what reads like a volcanic eruption – definitely a supernatural event since the Jordan valley is very short of volcanoes – and Lot’s wife disobeys orders and looks back to watch the fireworks. We never learn her name, but we do read her tragedy: she is turned into a pillar of salt! So far as we know, Lot does nothing to try to save her.

Afraid to stay in the nearby town of Zoar, Lot takes his daughters to the mountain and hides there. Their husbands never made it out of Sodom because, as we read, they didn’t believe destruction would come. So these two young women have no prospect of becoming mothers. What they do have is wine. So they feed their father enough wine to get him blotto, and proceed to engage in incest.

No, Lot was no great man. What he was, was Abraham’s nephew. As such, he merited Abraham’s concern and action – to care for him, to fight for him and rescue him, to pray for Divine help for him. In later Jewish history we developed the principle of pidyon sh’vuyim – redeeming prisoners – as a great mitzvah. We don’t judge them. They are our people. They could be in DP camps, or Ethiopian villages, or Iranian jails. They could be Talmud scholars or illiterate peasants. They could be observant Jews or godless Communists. We have a responsibility to help them.

If we don’t, who will?


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