THE HIGH AND THE HOME – “Vayeytzey”—Gen.28:10-31:3, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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THE HIGH AND THE HOME – “Vayeytzey”—Gen.28:10-31:3, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

When Jacob leaves home, ostensibly on his way to Haran to find a wife, but more importantly to get out of harm’s way in the person of his vengeful brother Esau, he stops for the night in a place that is strange to him, and goes to sleep on a rock. That place, that rock, that night, becomes a life-changing experience for him. Because that is where he has his famous dream: a ladder reaching into heaven, with angels climbing both up it and down it.

Interesting that the story has the angels going up first and then coming down. If angels are heavenly creatures, how did they get to the bottom of the ladder to climb up? Didn’t they have to come down first?

Rashi explains that these angels were already with Jacob. They were the angels of the Land of Israel, and they could go no further with him, because he chose to stop for the night just at the boundary line. So these Israeli Guard angels were changing places with a second group of angels who would accompany him outside the Land. Of course Jacob was totally unaware of this whole Changing of the Guard — until his dream.

What is striking is his reaction when he wakes up. Actually two reactions. The first – awe. “Certainly G-d is in this place and I did not know it!” Wow! What a dream! It must be Divine inspiration. That is the shock reaction. I was religious all the time and didn’t realize it! Then on further thought, he begins to digest the message he got in the dream – the message of Divine guidance on his journey and back home again. And he offers a return commitment. A contract, if you will. “If G-d will be with me on my way, and see that I have food to eat and clothes to wear, and if I can come home safely to my father’s house, then He will be my G-d, and whatever You give me, I will return You a tenth.” In other words, if this dream was a true flash of prophecy, and it comes true, I will believe. And if I get home safely, I’ll even make a contribution.

Each of us in our attitude toward our faith takes one of these attitudes. The contract, or the thrill. At different times, maybe both. Something wonderful happens to us – the thrill of love, or winning the lottery, or getting our discharge from the Armed Forces, or the birth of our first child, or maybe just climbing to the top of a major mountain and being alone with the universe. And we suddenly discover the Master of that Universe. Suddenly we realize that we were really religious all the time and didn’t know it. If that’s your experience, congratulations. You can savor the wonder of life.

Or… the daily grind becomes more complex. More grinding. We wish for some childhood simplicity. Let me go home safely to my father’s house, and I’ll be glad to pray. I’ll even make a contribution.

The first attitude is easier, but doesn’t come to everyone. The second is more common. Both are legitimate, and neither is the whole story. Which one applies to you? #1 can make you a Returnee, a “bal teshuva,” overnight. #2 should prompt you to reach back into your memory for the truths of home, the hope of home, the warmth of home. Recapture them where you are now. At least, try to approximate them. Learn a few things you never bothered to learn at home, and maybe some things you made a point to forget. Some Torah, some Minhogim – customs. Maybe that is what made home Home. The traditions of our homes prepared us for life’s climactic moments – the “Wow” – and for the yearnings of “Take me back to my father’s house.”

Here’s wishing you the supreme high of the “Wow.” And the fortitude to acquire the way home.

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A NOBODY? — “Toldos” – Gen. 25:19-28:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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A NOBODY? — “Toldos” – Gen. 25:19-28:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read a section called “Toldos Yitzhok” – literally, the history of Isaac. Very quickly we see that Isaac, the second of our patriarchs, is described in terms of other people. He is the son of Abraham, the husband of Rebecca, the father of Jacob and Esau. And who is he?

To quote my uncle of blessed memory, Rabbi Beryl D. Cohon of Boston, this history could be called the portrait of a Nobody.

A nobody? Let’s see. Does Isaac really have no importance? Certainly he carries forward a spark of Abraham’s inspiration. Just as certainly he finds love and fulfillment in his union with Rebecca. Like his father before him, he has two sons who are quite different from each other, and he will have a crisis over which one to call his real heir.

Unlike his father, he gets a direct message from G-d only twice. Once, he is told to stay in Canaan despite hard times, and not to go to Egypt, because this land of Canaan will belong to him and his descendants as G-d promised Abraham. The second Divine vision comes in a dream and gives him a blessing, and when he gets up, excited and inspired, he builds an altar and has his men dig a well. By contrast, Abraham had many one-on-ones with the Almighty. Is Isaac less holy?

Morris Adler, a rabbinical scholar of the last century, asks “What did Isaac do? He preserved a tradition; he held onto it; he received it and he was loyal to it. In a world of constant change, in a world where new fashions are sought and new habits constantly arise, in a world that never stops for a moment in its fluctuations, Isaac is not simply a negative character. He is the son of Abraham and the father of Jacob. He kept the chain that was handed to him… In all of his actions a tradition was preserved.”

Without Isaac the Jewish people would not exist. All through the centuries, individual Jews proudly bear his name. You and I and many others can identify with him because we link generations. To tend the flame of continuity is our mission. Family traditions, religious traditions, national traditions all bring pride and meaning to our lives. We who bear those traditions and add to them and pass them on are carrying on Isaac’s work.

Part of that work involves listening. Maybe he only heard a Divine voice directly twice. But there was another voice he heard quite often. Rebecca. She is the one who travelled many miles to marry a stranger – Isaac, a man of 40 still brooding over his mother’s loss. She is the one whose love points him toward the future. She is the one who selects which of her twin sons will actually be able to carry on the sacred family heritage. Maybe Esau can supply his father with venison, but Jacob can build him a nation. Rebecca sees that, so she connives with Jacob to get his father’s blessing, pretending to be Esau who had prior rights to it being a few minutes older. And she is the one who saves Jacob from his brother’s murderous fury by sending him to her home town – meanwhile complaining to Isaac about the Canaanite girls Esau brings home, and convincing him to send Jacob on the trip she already prepared him for, to find a wife from among his mother’s clan.

Isaac listens to good advice. No, don’t call him henpecked. He knows when his wife is right! Isaac builds his family, and establishes residence in the land that will be theirs. He is the indispensable link that joins the generations.

Isaac’s story is the portrait of a Somebody.

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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. 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 IS OUR NAME – Vayeyra – Gen. 18-22 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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LAUGHTER IS OUR NAME – Vayeyra – Gen. 18-22 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read of the birth of Isaac, second of our three patriarchs. Long awaited, this child of old age gets surrounded with love and with conflict from his birth on. First of course, his mother Sarah can’t believe that she will really bear a child after a long lifetime of infertility. When the visiting heavenly messengers announce that “next year when life is due (presumably meaning 9 months from now) Sarah will have a son,” she hears this prediction from the tent behind them, and she laughs. The root word for laughing in Hebrew is, like most such words, spelled with three letters. In this case it is tzadik, khet, kuf, spelling the word tzakhak — “laugh.” Afraid of condemnation for doubting, she denies laughing at this prediction. But after she actually does bear her son, we will read her reverie where she is quoted as saying “G-d made laughter (tz’khok) of me; all who hear of this will laugh (y’-tza-khak) at me.”

Abraham names his son YiTZ-KHaK. Those same three letters! Although we never see Isaac’s name translated, it means “he will laugh.” As he grows and comes in contact with his older half-brother Ishmael, other sounds of laughter are heard. One day Sarah looks outside and sees “the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she bore to Abraham, meTZaKHeK” –those three letters again, this time translated several different ways. Some translators say “making sport.” Others say simply “playing.” Still others, “mocking.” One text, building on Rashi’s commentary, translates it as “become depraved.” Maybe the word just pictures the 17-year-old boy poking fun at his 4-year-old kid brother and playing him for laughs.

Several commentators depict Ishmael bragging about being the older son and therefore entitled to a double portion of the family estate. But that is no laughing matter. What actually happens to Ishmael in this week’s reading is that he is banished, along with his slave-girl mother, becomes a desert archer and marries a girl from Egypt. The only time he and Isaac do anything together will be when they join to bury their father Abraham.

We sometimes hear it said that our sense of humor is what kept the Jewish people alive all these centuries. Very likely. Given the status of Jewish comedians and comedy writers, and the joy we all share in laughter – even laughing at ourselves – whether in a Purim Shpeel, a Sholem Aleichem story or the grimace of a Fyvush Finkel, we can be glad for our patriarch Isaac. Linking his father Abraham, pioneer of Jewish faith, with his son Jacob, progenitor of our 12 tribes, he gave us the great gift of laughter through his own name Yitzkhak – “He will Laugh.” Whether your name is Isaac or not, you share that heritage. We all do.

Yes indeed, Laughter is our name.

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A NEPHEW HE NEEDED? – Lech l’cha – Gen. 12-17 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A NEPHEW HE NEEDED? – Lech l’cha – Gen. 12-17 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s reading covers some famous subjects. First we will read how famine drives Abram and Sarai (not yet Abraham and Sarah) from their new home in Canaan down to Egypt, where they pass as brother and sister until the king takes the beautiful Sarai into his palace – and plans to take her into his bed – only to discover she is married, whereupon his better nature triumphs and he sends her and Abram out of his country. And at the end of the reading, when his name gets changed to Abraham, comes the Covenant, the Bris, yes, circumcision of all Jewish males, which we seem to be hearing about all the time recently. In between, we will read a dramatic story of a local war between four kings and five kings with a rather surprising finish. Here our father Abraham exhibits some remarkable qualities. That in-between story is worth examining.

At first, the tribal conflicts look petty. One prince, the king of Elam, rules over the neighboring people for 12 years. Then in the 13th year they presumably get tired of paying him tribute and they rebel. So he gathers his henchmen (a dominant one named Kedarlaomer and two other local kings) and goes on the attack, defeating one tribe after another. When they come to a valley called Siddim, they face a pitched battle against no less than five kings – including those from Sodom and Gomorrah (already famous as homes of various kinds of evil, but not to be punished until next week). Four beat five here, because the valley is full of slime pits and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fall into the pits and their cohorts flee to the mountains. So Kedarlaomer and his buddies take spoils – and prisoners – from the defeated cities. Among them, none other than Lot, Abraham’s nephew who was living in Sodom.

What brought Lot to the wicked city? When Abram and Sarai left Egypt, nephew Lot went with them, back to Canaan, where both he and his uncle prospered. They acquired so many flocks that their shepherds fought each other, and Abram told Lot they had to separate. So Lot picked the Jordan valley to settle in, and pitched his tent in Sodom. Now that choice was making him a prisoner of war.

Abram hears that Lot and his family are captured, and he proceeds to take action. He arms a force of 318 men, trails the enemy army north to near Damascus, and attacks them at night. He succeeds in retrieving the goods they seized, and rescues Lot and his all-female family of a wife and two daughters. Returning south, Abram is greeted by the king of Sodom and others who celebrate with wine and bless Abram’s victory. In grateful admiration, the king of Sodom tells Abram: “Give me the people, and you take the goods!” But Abram declines to take any spoils. “I have lifted my hand to G-d Most High, that I will not take anything, from a thread to a shoestring, anything that is yours.”

Before his personality is complete, before he completely proves his devotion to the One G-d he has discovered, before either Ishmael or Isaac is born, our forefather demonstrates that he is ready to fight, and die if necessary, to save a family member. And is Lot such a deserving family member? Didn’t he pick a city full of low-lifes to live in? And next week won’t we read about the destruction of that city and Lot getting rescued again – this time by angels – only to lose his wife to her own curiosity? And then doesn’t he proceed to get drunk and impregnate his daughters? What did Abraham need him for?

Like every human being, Abraham did not get to pick his relatives. What choices he had were choices of action. There he faced challenges that many others don’t have to face. And he set a shining example for us all.

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