DESTINY, DECEIT and ROMANCE – Vayeytzey – Gen. 27:10—32:3, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

DESTINY, DECEIT and ROMANCE – Vayeytzey – Gen. 27:10—32:3, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Personal stories about our patriarchs flavor the Book of Genesis with some fascinating – and even some familiar – relationships. Last week we learned how Isaac received Rebecca as a pre-determined wife ordered by his father and brought to him by the major domo Eliezer. This week we will read a very different Shiddukh (matchmaking) story.

Jacob is no stay-at-home rancher like his father. He sets out to see his world and meet his relatives, journeying from Beer Sheva to Haran. There he finds the local shepherds gathering to water their flocks, and waiting till all of them are gathered to remove the huge rock that covers the well. They get together, move the rock and water their sheep, then put the rock back in place. Inquiring about his relatives, Laban’s family, he is told that not only do they all know Laban, but “here is his daughter Rachel with their flock.” Sure enough, a beautiful girl arrives leading a huge flock of sheep. And here comes romance! Struck with his young cousin’s looks, Jacob proceeds to roll that huge rock off the well single-handed, and then kisses Rachel.

Two questions enter the reader’s mind. First, of course, if the rock requires so many men to move it in order to water the flocks, why doesn’t Rachel get there earlier? All right, she’s late that day. And secondly, where does Jacob get the nerve to kiss a girl he never saw before? Wasn’t Jacob frum? Wasn’t he our third patriarch? Shame on you, Yankel!

Maybe this meeting forms a romantic exception to the rules. Maybe Rachel also behaved questionably by submitting to Jacob’s kiss. Didn’t she suffer plenty afterwards? Seven long years waiting for her groom while he works for her father. We will read the amazing story of her wedding night, when by her father’s deceitful trickery it is her sister Leah who winds up in Jacob’s bed, and not Rachel. And how Jacob has to agree to another seven years of virtual slavery so he can marry both sisters.

Interestingly enough, none of the classic commentators discuss that first kiss. And from the Talmud on, tradition tells us that Jacob’s 14 years of service does not mean that Rachel had to wait that long to get married. Using the Hebrew term shavua which can describe a period of seven years or seven days, we learn that when Jacob discovers Leah in his bed in the morning and challenges Laban “Why did you deceive me?” Laban agrees to give him Rachel too. Just maley sh’vua zos – “Finish out this week” of celebration, and you can marry her. Recognizing that wedding ceremonies were very different then, if not totally confined to a family party and physical intimacy, we need to realize that here was our #3 patriarch, still young and strong, with two wives and a growing family, building up his crafty father-in-law’s estate for a total of 20 long years.

What did Jacob earn? Later in the reading we will see how he prepared for his trip home, by setting the terms of his wages: all the striped and speckled animals will be his, the plain colored ones remain with Laban. And we see that Jacob is up to some trickery too. He catches the animals at the time of procreation and hypnotizes them with poplar and almond and plane-tree branches that he has peeled to make white streaks. “The flocks conceived at the sight of the peeled rods, and bore striped and speckled and spotted.”

Defeated economically, Laban can only charge Jacob to swear that he will never take any more wives “alongside my daughters.” Jacob and his family head back to Canaan. Why go there? He had built himself some wealth in Haran. Indeed, why Canaan again? Back at the beginning of his trip, the angels in his dream brought him the Divine promise that the land he slept on would be his. That land was Canaan, presently dominated by his wicked brother Esau. Esau, like their father Isaac, never got his name changed. But Jacob would soon become Israel. And that land was to be the Land of Israel.

So in this one reading, Destiny joins with Deceit and Romance to tell us an exciting story of our distant ancestor. And next week he will face his murderous brother, his rival for a homeland. News? Tune in to the Torah.

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HOW MANY JUDY’S DO YOU KNOW? — Toldos – Gen.25:19—28:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HOW MANY JUDY’S DO YOU KNOW? — Toldos – Gen.25:19—28:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Of all feminine first names, certainly one of the most popular among our people is Judith, usually abbreviated to Judy. In its Hebrew form Yehudit it is a description of a person or a thing as being Jewish. If a Jewish man is a Yehudi, Hebrew grammar adds a letter and his sister is a Yehudit, whatever her given name might be. Most of us have at least one cousin by that name, don’t we?

Linguistically, the word Yehudit is also used to identify a Jewish language like Yiddish or Ladino. It can also signify a product or an activity as being associated with Jewish people. Want to give your kid a birthday party? Make it a Jewish celebration – a Khagigah Yehudit!

Certainly we would expect this familiar name to have Biblical roots. And in fact it does. This week’s Torah reading includes the first – and only – mention of the name Judith in the entire Hebrew Bible. And who was she? A matriarch like Sarah? A devoted leader like Miriam?

Don’t be shocked, but she was not even Jewish. Reading of Isaac’s family, we come to his older son Esau, and we learn that at age 40 Esau married two Hittite women. One of them was Judith, daughter of B’eyri, a Hittite chief. What was she like? The very next sentence describes her as a source of moras ruakh – “bitterness of spirit” – to Isaac and Rebecca.

Now wait a minute, all you Judy’s. Don’t change your name yet. We have another sacred book, later than the Tanach, a collection of books in fact, called the Apocrypha. Along with books like The Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus, and the two books of Maccabees that give us the Hanukkah story, here we find a book named Judith. The story it tells takes place during the Assyrian invasion led by Holofernes, one of Nebuchadnezzar’s generals. Critics place the Hebrew manuscript as written sometime around the first century BCE. The book has 16 chapters, and the name Judith does not even appear until Chapter 8. Those first seven chapters tell us about the invasion, the cruelty of the Assyrians and their takeover of all the water sources in the territories they conquered. In the city of Bethulia the people are suffering drought, while their enemies camp nearby and demand passage through the hills. Their governors are no help, stuck between a desperate population and a stubborn enemy.

Only a young widow can help them. She is Judith. Her husband died just 3 years and 4 months ago, a victim of sunstroke during the barley harvest. Still in mourning, and still beautiful, respected by her neighbors for her faithful ways – and also for the wealth her husband left her – Judith steps forward and listens to the people’s cries. The governors promised to deliver the city to the Assyrians within 5 days! All could be killed!

She sends her maids to invite the governors to her house, and she gives them a good lecture, showing them the danger of their policy, and reminding them what their forefathers did and how Divine wisdom inspired them. To which Governor Ozias replies with respect to her wisdom, and asks her to pray for them.

Judith will pray, all right, and she has other plans too. No details here; she just says in effect “Don’t stop me.” To which Ozias agrees, wishing her well. And the big shots leave.
As soon as they are gone, Judith offers passionate prayers, and then prepares for action. She dresses magnificently, makes up her face to accent her famous beauty, gathers her maids around her, and gives them some gifts to carry – wine, oil, corn, figs and fine bread. And they head for the city gate. There she demands and gets the gate opened, and proceeds toward the Assyrian camp.

What follows there is a step-by-step deception of the general, Holofernes, and his officers – all of whom find Judith fascinating. First, the officers. They welcome this beautiful woman of the Hebrews, who claims she fled the city because it and its people are doomed to be conquered and killed. She claims she can tell their leader how to take over all the hill country without losing a single soldier. They listen, they look at her face, and they believe. Without asking questions, they take her to Holofernes’ tent.

Interviewing this gorgeous lady is something Holofernes really enjoys. She states her faith in the Almighty, yet in outlining her plan to Holofernes, she swears – not by the Almighty but by Nebuchadnezzar. She declares that her nation of Israel will not be punished or defeated unless they sinned against their G-d. And she offers to guide Holofernes through her country to victory. The sessions go on for 3 days, as the Assyrian commander grows more and more fascinated with Judith. On the fourth day he orders a feast, inviting all his personal servants – but not the army officers. He orders his Number One eunuch to invite the Hebrew woman to the feast, to eat and drink with him. She accepts, but insists that she may not eat or drink anything but what she and her maid brought with them. She will not break any kosher laws.

Holofernes has no such limits, either on solid food or on wine. He welcomes Judith into his private tent and proceeds to drink himself unconscious. Nobody else will enter the tent, because the eunuchs are following orders to shut the door and stay outside with Judith’s maid. Alone with Holofernes now, Judith approaches his bed, where he is out cold. She looks up and sees something hanging from the upper bed frame. A scimitar! Hands trembling, she takes the scimitar down. Silently she prays: “G-d of Israel, make me strong today!” And she strikes the snoring man’s neck – not once but twice, with all her might. The head rolls free. She pulls the bedclothes around the body, wraps the head and takes it outside to her maid, who hides it in the food bag. They immediately proceed up the mountain to Bethulia’s city gates. She proclaims that G-d’s mercy is still with His people, and calls for the governors. They hear her voice and run to admit her.

“Look!” she says, “Here is the head of Holofernes, captain of the army of Assyria. See the canopy where he lay drunk. G-d struck him by the hand of a woman.” And she continues to express her thanks to the Almighty that the general fell for her fabulous face, but never defiled her body.

Ozias the governor praises Judith and orders an attack on the enemy camp. They take Judith with them, heroine of the nation. Their counterattack drives the enemy all the way to Damascus and beyond. They reward Judith with all the spoils they take from Holofernes’ tent, and Judith leads the women of Israel in victory songs and dances.

She also composes a song of celebration that is the last chapter of her book.
So the woman who caused Isaac and Rebecca such spiritual pain had the same name as the woman who brought victory and holy gratitude to her entire country. Which Judith would you rather be?

Probably most of today’s Judys would say Neither one. And very likely they are right. When we name our babies after our parents or grandparents, we hope that the name will bring some of the goodness of our loved ones of blessed memory to these new members of the family. And when we give a new child a name of an ancient foreparent – a Sarah or an Abraham, a David or – yes, a Judith – we do so with a prayer for the honor that comes with that name. Earning that honor is up to our child.

So we wish all our Judy’s some of the devotion and courage and success of your namesake. And all the acclaim of your people.

Ken y’hee ratzon.

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

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 Mel Brooks, 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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GOING HOME – Lekh l’kha – Gen. 12-17, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

GOING HOME – Lekh l’kha – Gen. 12-17, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Some Torah readings have distinguishing titles, and this week’s reading stands out. In the opening sentence, Abram gets the Divine message that starts with the two words that became the title: lekh l’kha, literally “go to you.” What does that mean? Where is Abram told to go?

Of course, the following sentences go into detail, listing the places that he is leaving: his country, his birthplace, his father’s house. And the destination of his trip is “a land that I will show you.” But for that destination, just one word lekh would be required, wouldn’t it? Simply, go. Why the second word?

Commentators differ on this question. Rashi explains that the second word, l’kha – “to you” – indicates that this journey will be to Abram’s benefit.

The Klee Yokor explores various interpretations of this word, and compares its usage in Biblical Hebrew to the narrative that says the Flood halakh lo – took itself away. So here, maybe Abram is being told to “take yourself away” to a land which, unknown to you now, contains the place where human life was created. Mount Moriah in what is now Jerusalem, we are told, was where Adam and Eve came from. The same hill that would one day welcome Solomon’s Temple.

And the Baal haTurim commentary points out the numerical value of the letters lamed and khaf that spell out each of these words, namely 30 and 20, making a total of 50, times 2 = 100. So, suggests Baal haTurim, the Almighty is promising Abram another 100 years of life. Since Abram at this point in the story is 75 years old, and the Torah lists his life as lasting 175 years, that would be an interesting interpretation of lekh l’kha.

But perhaps this mysterious title has still another message to give us. Going to yourself is more than a change of location. Going to yourself can mean gathering the strength to recover from addiction. Regaining clarity of thought and positive purpose. Going to yourself can mean accepting your neighbors without judging them, and honoring those who deserve it. Going to yourself can mean opening your mind to your heritage, exploring your ancestral traditions and bringing them into your life, adding the joy of Mitzva to yourself and your family. It can mean not leaving your birthplace or your people’s house, but treasuring those parts of your life and renewing those connections.

Mount Moriah may be the historic home of humanity and a hallowed location for our people. It is a worthwhile physical destination. But the personal destination we can all seek is lekh l’kha – going to your true self. In other words, going home.

Going home. May we all have a successful journey there.

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