DOT’S DA DIFFERENCE – Vayishlakh – Gen. 32:4 – 36, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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DOT’S DA DIFFERENCE – Vayishlakh – Gen. 32:4 – 36, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Nowhere in the Torah do we find dental bridges mentioned. I mention them here because I happen to have one in my mouth, and this week’s reading reminds me of it every year. Why do I have a bridge between my teeth? It so happens that while eating dinner with guests in our Succah one year I bit down on a stainless steel fork and broke a tooth. Rather than make a scene, I just spit out half a tooth and finished my meal carefully. But other teeth later loosened around it, and my dentist fitted me with a bridge. No more problems. But what does this have to do with Torah?

Just this. This week’s reading includes the story of Jacob meeting his brother Esau for the first time in years, as Jacob returns from Haran. He now has a family, and flocks and herds and camels, hardly the same lone terrified Jacob who fled his brother’s anger. How will Esau react to him now? He sends messengers ahead, to Esau in Mount Seir in the place called Edom, with gifts, to announce his arrival. They report back, telling him that Esau is coming to meet him alright – with 400 armed men. So Jacob divides his followers into two camps, figuring that if Esau attacks one camp, the other camp can be saved. The night passes, with Jacob praying, and then struggling with a mysterious stranger – possibly an angel – but in the morning he manages to set out and meet Esau and his 400-man army. Jacob has his wives and children take turns approaching their dreaded uncle. Jacob himself goes ahead of them and bows seven times. And then, to our surprise, we read: “Esau ran to meet him, fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Is this the same man who wanted to kill him? What about the little army? And what about those dots over the word for “and kissed him?” Dots over words are rare in the Torah. What do they mean?

This is where the dental problem comes in. Commentators, from Rashi on, tell us that what Esau really intended to do was to bite Jacob’s neck. In fact, the 3-letter Hebrew root words for “bite” and “kiss” are quite similar. Nashak and nashach. Only one letter is different – kuf (the K-sound) in the word “kiss” and the guttural chaf in “bite.” To which one Midrash adds this explanation: Esau did bite Jacob’s neck, aiming for the jugular. But at that moment Jacob’s neck miraculously turned to iron. Esau broke all his teeth. No wonder he cried!

Maybe the Midrash has a message here for all of us, personally and nationally. The old stiff neck can protect us from false friends. All the bowing that Jacob and his wives and children did for Esau – no dots. It was sincere. Esau’s display of emotion remains questionable. The Torah’s dots pose that silent question. We might well dot various agreements made with questionable groups today, including some of Esau’s descendants.

We notice that Esau proceeds to accept Jacob’s gifts, and invites him to bring his family to Edom. Jacob declines, citing the difficulty of travel for his children. Really, how does he know when to expect Esau’s next attempted attack? Better leave some space between them. Through the centuries after that, Israel and Edom remained enemies. Rabbis in the Talmud even refer to Rome, the enemy in their day, by the code name Edom. Esau’s actions left the taste of danger in the mouths of Jacob’s family. As it left those dots in the Torah.

Nobody dots nuclear treaties these days. Seems like the least we could do.


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LEAVING TOWN – Vayeitzei – Gen.27:10 – 32:3, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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LEAVING TOWN – Vayeitzei – Gen.27:10 – 32:3, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read several chapters in Jacob’s life, some wonderful and some very trying. A patriarch matures, discovers G-d, deals with the crafty father of his future wives, and starts building a family and a fortune – a fortune in sheep, that is.

Today let’s concentrate on the very first sentence of this week’s reading. Here is the action that starts Jacob on his way to become the direct father of the Jewish people:

“Jacob left Be’er Sheva and went to Haran.”

Simple enough. Every trip begins with leaving town. Rashi asks a basic question, though: “All that was necessary to write was ‘he went to Haran.’ Why does [the Torah] mention his leaving [Be’er Sheva]?” Really, how else could he travel if he didn’t leave town? But, says Rashi, “this tells us that when a tzadik – a righteous man – leaves a city, it makes a deep impression. While he is in town, he is its fame, its light, its honor. When he departs, the fame and light and honor depart.”

Well, it didn’t all depart, did it? As the Midrash points out, Isaac and Rebecca still lived there. But Jacob’s effect was different. While Isaac’s blindness isolated him from other people, and Rebecca spent all her time caring for Isaac, Jacob interacted directly with his neighbors. That produced the three effects that Rashi mentions: Hadar – honor, as the residents of Be’er Sheva take pride in the fact that Jacob lives among them, Ziv – radiant light, a guiding force in human conduct, as the righteous one inspires others to do good deeds, and Hod – fame, as with the tzadik’s influence the city becomes known as a good place to live, a place where people treat each other well.

We might well search for a city in today’s world with such a reputation generated by just one of its residents.

In the case of Jacob’s city, its name has another significance. Be’er Sheva literally means “the well of seven,” but the word sheva can refer to either the number 7 or an “oath.” The name of the place comes from the story of Abraham and Avimelech, when they joined in an oath — a historic agreement about some wells, and Abraham sealed the oath with a sacrifice of 7 rams. The Midrash comments that those 7 also represent the number of generations that would pass before Abraham’s descendants could enter and possess their land. The Matnos Kehuna commentary notes that Isaac, too, made a similar treaty with the aging Avimelech, which then placed the entry to the Land of Israel at 7 generations after Isaac.

So why didn’t Jacob renew the treaty? Apparently Avimelech was still around. But Jacob took a different route. The Lubavitcher Rebbe describes the quality that set Jacob apart. Unlike his father and grandfather who each had two sons – one good and one bad – Jacob had 12 sons and a daughter, all good. Some of them made major mistakes, as we will see described in dramatic detail in the coming weeks. But they came around. They did their t’shuvah and lived to honor their father. The reason for that lies in Jacob’s character. Where Abraham and Isaac “did not win over the forces of evil but merely appeased them,” says the Rebbe, “Jacob had the ability to transform the forces of evil to become good.” He had no need to make a treaty with his enemy. Just as Abraham’s treaty delayed his descendants entering the Land for 7 generations after Abraham, and Isaac’s treaty added his own generation to the other 7, a third treaty with Avimelech would delay the entry to the Land for one more generation.

Accordingly, at the end of this week’s reading we find the angels of the Land of Israel coming to escort Jacob home. Back to Be’er Sheva. It was still his home. Some of us remember Be’er Sheva for its camel auctions, like the one I witnessed on my first trip to Israel. But in those Genesis days it was our patriarchs’ home, and Jacob came back.

Back, we must conclude, to the town he left.


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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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MAKING A MATCH – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Hayyey Sarah, Gen.23-25:18

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MAKING A MATCH – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Hayyey Sarah, Gen.23-25:18

This week brings us the story of Eliezer the matchmaker. Abraham’s major domo, Eliezer of Damascus, gets the problematic honor of travelling to his master’s birthplace to find a wife for Isaac. Aided by prayer and miracle, he arrives at a watering hole. And here comes a girl to draw water for the family’s evening meal. He asks her for a drink from her pitcher. “Drink, my lord,” she says, and even offers to draw water for his camels. All 10 of them. Eliezer is so impressed with this girl that he takes out a gold ring and two bracelets and puts them on her hands. All this before he even asks her who she is. Then when he learns she is in fact the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother he gives thanks to Abraham’s G-d.

So who is this girl? The Torah identifies her as Rivkah – Rebecca – daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah by Nahor the brother of Abraham, a “damsel very fair to look upon, whom no man had known.” In other words, a beautiful young virgin.

Rebecca finds the gifts pretty exciting and runs home to show her mother. She also has a brother named Lavan, a fellow with as much greed as he has chutzpah. He sees the jewelry and runs to the well.

Lavan shows up at the well and invites Eliezer to their home. “Come to us,” he urges. “I already cleaned the house and made room for the camels.” So Eliezer accepts the invitation. Once in their house, he asks them to send Rebecca back with him to marry Isaac. Answering ahead of his parents, Lavan asserts that this event came from the Almighty and they cannot refuse. So Eliezer gives him and his mother more gifts. A sizeable bride-price, in fact. Bethuel, the father, says nothing. For him this is a deal. A party follows, and a night’s lodging for Eliezer and his camels.

The next morning when Eliezer wants to take Rebecca and go, Lavan again speaks first. “How about leaving her with us for a year – 10 months anyway—and then she can go.” Our commentators point out that ancient custom called for a prospective bride to spend a year collecting jewelry to wear at her wedding. But Eliezer objects. “Don’t delay me. I must return to my master.”

What can Lavan do? Maybe he can sense his father looking at him, silently warning him not to blow the deal.

“We will call the girl in and ask her.” And they do.

Rebecca agrees to go. It is her decision. So her family, including her brother, must take leave of her with a blessing: “Our sister, may you become thousands of myriads (10,000s) [of descendants]!” In this scene, Rebecca sets a precedent for Jewish life to this day. Two precedents, in fact.

First is the principle of permission. “Call the girl in and ask her.” No Jewish woman is to be given in marriage without her permission. In times when women in other cultures were property to be bought and sold, Jewish women had rights. Talmudic law recognizes a father’s right to betroth his daughter who is under age 12 years and 6 months. But when she reaches that “maturity” she can refuse to continue in the marriage. Marital commitment is certainly a basic right.

Second precedent concerns the veil, and hope for a fruitful future. We read here that when Rebecca first sees Isaac, she jumps down off the camel and asks Eliezer who that man is. Learning that it is her husband to be, she covers herself with a veil. Ever since then, a Jewish bride wears a veil. Today when she dons the veil before the wedding, it is done in a little ceremony called badek’n, and we bless her with the very words Rebecca’s family spoke: Akhoseynu aht ha-yee l’alfey r’vovoh – “Our sister, may you become thousands of myriads!”

Thousands? Myriads? How about millions? Well, Rebecca did, didn’t she?


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ILLUMINATING THE WORLD – Vayeira – Gen. 18-22 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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ILLUMINATING THE WORLD – Vayeira – Gen. 18-22 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Several contrasting stories in this week’s Torah reading, exploring how Abraham handled different experiences, finally lead up to the most famous experience of all – the Akeida – the sacrifice of Isaac, which of course does not really take place. It is the Divine test of Abraham’s devotion. He leaves his two helpers at a distance, and takes his son – only his son – his only son by Sarah – up the mountain with him. Tradition tells us that this mountain is none other than the Temple Mount. The Torah does not say that, just calls it the “place that G-d told him.” On the way, Isaac asks the obvious question: “Here is the fire and here is the wood, and where is the sheep for the sacrifice?” And Abraham replies that G-d will provide the sheep. Some commentators insist that Isaac knew he was the “sheep” and had every intention of giving his life. What was going through the mind of Abraham, we cannot guess. But he builds the altar and prepares the wood.

We all know what happened. Abraham raises the knife to slaughter his son, and a heavenly voice stops him. He passed the test! Turning to look around, he sees the ram caught in the bush by his horn and sacrifices the ram “instead of his son.”

Then Abraham gets a great blessing. Really no one else in the Bible qualifies for this blessing. “Through your descendants,” says G-d, “all the nations on the earth will bless themselves.”

Did it really happen? Did Abraham’s descendants bring blessing to the entire human race? We see some important statistics about that – like the percentage of Jewish winners of Nobel prizes in science, in medicine, in various fields that make life better for people. We descendants of Abraham tend to glory in the Jewish names among leading authors, movie stars and politicians. Is that what the Torah means?

We also hear about Abrahamic religions – monotheisms including both Christianity and Islam – that resulted from Abraham’s discovery of the One G-d.

Perhaps Leo Tolstoy’s quote in the Hertz Commentary is worth remembering in this context. Tolstoy wrote: “The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illuminated with it the entire world.”

I dare say most of us do not feel that we are sacred beings, and most of us cannot claim credit for illuminating the world. But it’s a great idea, and a great legacy, this heritage of our Father Abraham. He passed a test, the test of human value. He proved he was willing to sacrifice his son’s life to prove his faith, and by following his inspiration to substitute the animal he put an end to the barbaric practice of human sacrifice among his people. Saving human life helps to illuminate the word.

His descendants did continue sacrificing animals for many generations, but they set increasing limits. First they did away with private altars, then they confined sacrificial worship to the Jerusalem Temple. And when they lost the Temple, they substituted prayer – t’filah bim’kom korban, prayer in the place of sacrifice. And let their animals live.

If all this illumines the world, so be it. We can rejoice in being Abraham’s descendants!

Over the course of the centuries, and again today, we find ourselves dealing with those who don’t share Abraham’s blessing. Some of them even claim to be Abraham’s other descendants, the Ishmaelites. Mathematicians credit the Arabs with inventing the concept of the zero. Quite symbolic. Yet today they share the benefits of Abraham’s Jewish descendants, in Israeli hospitals, in high technology, and in a religion which proclaims only one G-d, even when terrorists distort that faith to sanction murder.

All of which brings us back to the phrasing of Abraham’s blessing. The Torah text reads v’hisbor’khu – “they will bless themselves.” Not “they will be blest”, but “they will bless themselves.” The nations of the earth will bless themselves through your descendants. The blessings are there. It remains for the nations to use them wisely and justly. All we can do is to make those blessings available. No small task in itself.

Let’s hope we can continue doing so.


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