At the first meeting of a class, discussion, or spiritual direction group, I invite people to introduce themselves. Sometimes, I’ll ask members of a Jewish group to give me a sense of their spiritual orientation.
“Let us know,” I’ll say, “which name of our people most closely describes you.
“Are you Ivri (עברי Hebrew), a boundary-crosser, like our ancestor Abraham who crossed the rivers to begin a new life?
“Are you Yisrael (ישראל Israel), one who wrestles with God, like our ancestor Jacob who struggled with the mysterious stranger – and described it as ‘seeing the face of God?’
“Or are you Yehudi (יהודי Jew), a grateful one, like our ancestor Judah who learned to appreciate his precious family and its potential to love?”
The Torah itself does not appreciate my neat three-fold distinction. Rather, Torah reports that Jacob received his spiritual name Yisrael on the day he was most Ivri.
Torah uses the root for “crossing” עבר (ayin, bet, resh) five times as it describes the hours before Jacob’s famous wrestle and reconciliation with his brother.
The gift to Esau crossed before him. He took his two wives, two concubines and eleven children and crossed the Yabbok crossing. He took them across the river and he took his belongings across. Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn. (Gen. 32:22-25).
As Torah sees it, Jacob’s wrestling is a profound psychological process. It calls on all his resources: family, access to land, possessions. When it is complete, his inner light shines, illuminating three stages. Jacob has crossed a boundary, wrestled with a mystery, and expressed gratitude for insight, family, and growth. He is Ivri, Yisrael, and Yehudi.
Dark Night/Bright Morning (2013/5774)
When Ya’akov comes into conflict with his brother Esav and heads for the City of Charan, Torah says, va hashemesh: the sun sets (Gen 28:11). Twenty years later, after Ya’akov leaves Charan, reconciles with his brother, and wrestles with a mysterious stranger, Torah says, vayizrach lo hashemesh, the sun shines for him (Gen 32:32). The sun sets on Ya’akov’s life as he enters Charan and rises when he leaves.
During that long metaphorical night in Charan, Ya’akov enters into an arranged marriage and a marriage of love, fathers twelve children, works as an indentured apprentice, becomes a master sheep-breeder, finally amasses enough wealth to support his large family, and leaves his father-in-law’s household with the support of both his wives.
These are the most productive years of Ya’akov’s life. How could Torah describe them as Ya’akov’s night? One answer is found in Richard Rohr’s concept of the two halves of life. In the first half, we learn to succeed at adult tasks. In the second half, we develop inner spiritual resources. Ya’akov succeeds brilliantly at first-half-of-life tasks. But the shadow of his conflict with Esav hangs over him, waiting to be healed, calling him early into second-half-of-life tasks. But Ya’akov cannot access his inner resources. Night comes to an end only when he wrestles with someone who has been a stranger to him – described in Torah simultaneously as his brother, his guardian angel, and his deeper self.
The prophet Hoshea teaches about developing inner spiritual resources (11:7-12:12). Don’t seek the answer in material things, he says. Let every part of yourself be open to God’s call: from your inner lion to your inner dove. Have compassion on yourself. Your sun will rise, as surely as day follows night.
Fun With Genealogy (2012/5773)
Do Biblical genealogies make your eyes glaze over? This week’s Edomite genealogy, filled with subtle treasures, just might change your mind.
Women appear frequently as men are identified by the names of their mothers, sisters, and wives. Two women, Timna and Oholibamah, are named as chiefs of a clan. Were the Edomites more egalitarian than the Israelites? When Leah’s daughter Dina “goes out to see the local women,” is she visiting with friends who have a great deal of social freedom?
Eight Edomite kings, who reigned before the Israelite kings, are named. The first is Bela ben Beor – whose Hebrew name differs from that of the seer Balaam ben Beor by only one letter. Are they the same person, a miraculously long-lived magician from a royal line, who can’t help but bless the Israelite tents? No, says commentator Ibn Ezra. Bela was an Edomite while Balaam was an Aramean. And despite the midrashic view that Balaam is the same person as Lavan the Aramean, common sense says he is not – though both did meet God in dreams.
Anah discovered mules living in the wilderness while he was shepherding his father’s donkeys. For his time, commentator Ramban says, his discovery that horses could mate with donkeys was considered wise. Only later did people understand that mules would be sterile; hence Torah’s later teaching that mixing species is a bad idea.
Esav’s son Reu’el named his children Nachat, Zerach, Shamah and Mizeh. Their names mean: “Joy,” “Shone” “There” “From This.” Was Reu’el happy to have children or what? Did his children feel pressured or appreciated? Would you give your children names like these?
Smile – and may Shabbat joy shine in your heart.
Dina’s Story: Alive and Well in the 21st Century (2011/5772)
Dina goes out to see some girlfriends. Shechem, a local prince, coerces her into sex. He falls in love with her. He talks to her heart. He asks his father Chamor to arrange their marriage.
Chamor pays a formal visit to Dina’s father Ya’akov. “Let our families become intertwined,” he says. Ya’akov’s sons say, “First your men must become circumcised.” Chamor and Shechem return to their city where they easily gain the men’s consent.
As the men are healing from their circumcision, Ya’akov’s sons Shimon and Levi kill them all, and bring Dina home. Ya’akov confronts them, calling their action shameful and dangerous. They reply, “Do they dare treat our sister like a whore?”
Ohr Hachayyim (Morocco, 1700s) tries to articulate the great divide between the perspectives of Ya’akov and his sons. In Ya’akov’s mind, if good people ask appropriately for your daughter’s hand in marriage, you say “yes.” Of course it would be better if sex didn’t happen first, but Shechem broke no laws by sleeping with a single woman, and what’s done is done. In the mind of Shimon and Levi, Shechem abused their sister. Given that there is no law against unmarried sex, they will use their own methods to make sure people are afraid to abuse their sister.
Ramban (Spain, 1200s) says, even if Shimon and Levi meant to protect the family, their actions were still motivated by violent hatred. Legal punishment aside, acting on an impulse to destroy is a terrible sin.
In many places in our world today, laws do not adequately protect women. As Ohr Hachayyim notes, families attempt to protect their daughters with early marriage or with violent responses to violation. As Ramban recognizes, these cycles of exchange become ends in themselves, and the needs of women are forgotten.
Please allow your outrage at the story of Dina to remind you that it is a contemporary story. Please visit AJWS to read up on what you can do.
Connect the Dots (2009/5770)
Brothers Ya’akov and Esav meet after years of separation following their conflict over the birthright. Torah says: “Esav ran to meet him [Ya’akov], and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.” (Bereisheet/Genesis 33:4)
In the Torah scroll, the word vayishakehu, “and kissed him” is marked with six dots, one above each Hebrew letter. Why? The Masoretic scholars who fixed the final form of the Torah scroll marked passages they found theologically or spiritually problematic. What did they want us to notice here?
One theory: It’s simplistic to think that deep family conflict could all dissolve in a hug. The brothers must have had mixed feelings. And in fact, the Hebrew word for “kiss” shares some root letters with the Hebrew word for “weapon.” Perhaps the dots invite us to notice the subtlety of Torah’s language: a single Hebrew word can express a very complex inner moment.
Another theory: Many midrashim come from late antiquity, when the traditional religion of Judaism and the new religion of Christianity were re-defining themselves as theologically different from one another. In many midrashic stories, the character of Ya’akov represents Judaism and Esav represents Christianity. Perhaps the dots hint at the scholars’ mixed feelings about the future of Jewish-Christian relations: simultaneously hopeful and worried.
A final theory: The dots get our attention! Perhaps the dots remind us to honor our own ambivalence by making multiple, changing interpretations of Torah. The dots are like an English ellipsis…each time we make an interpretation relevant to our own lives, they ask, “And what else? What else do you think?”
Face of the Divine (2007/5768)
Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, a holocaust survivor, writes about the experience of calling out to God and getting no response. In a world where God does not always respond, each person needs to be responsible for responding to each other. When a face in need presents itself, we should respond, no matter how distant or different the face seems. God operates in the world wherever a face in need calls out, and wherever a person is motivated to respond.
In presenting his ideas, Levinas plays on language of Parshat Vayishlach. In this parashah, Ya’akov is about to come face to face with the twin brother he fears. The night before the meeting, Ya’akov wrestles in the night with a mysterious stranger. The symbolism of the story is obvious: Ya’akov wrestles with his past. He is successful, and he receives a new name. Ya’akov describes the experience by saying “I have seen the face of God.” When he sees his brother the next day he says, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of the divine.”
What does Ya’akov mean? Levinas would say that Ya’akov means many things. “Picturing your face called me into God’s presence.” “I was afraid to see you face to face, but God’s presence motivated me.” “Now that I am open to you, I am open to you, I see God’s presence reflected in your face.”