• Vayechi


    Diaspora Jewish leaders in the Bible

    The character of Joseph has a surprisingly modern ring: by talent and hard work, an immigrant Jew rises to high office in a foreign country, helping both that country and his own people. But Joseph is not the only character in the Bible who rises to prominence in a foreign society. Two other books of the Bible tell similar stories of talent and promotion in the Diaspora – the book of Esther (the Purim story) and the Book of Daniel.

    Taken together these three stories – of Joseph, of Esther and of Daniel – suggest some interesting Biblical insights into the role and nature of Diaspora Jewish leaders.

    These three stories, and in particular the lives of their heroes, share some remarkable similarities. Here are ten of them:

    • Joseph, Esther, and Daniel were all immigrants, first or second generation, in a foreign society.
    • They were all orphans, or separated from their parents at an early age, or both.
    • They were all physically attractive. It is rare that the Bible comments on the physical appearance of any of its characters. And yet in all three cases the Bible goes out of its way to emphasize that they were good looking. (Genesis 39:4,6; Esther 2:2,7; Daniel 1:4,19)
    • They are all initiated into the foreign culture by someone of high office. As immigrants, each of them finds a sponsor or guardian who teaches them the ways of the society in which they find themselves.
    • In each case the adopted guardian is described as a eunuch (“ seris ”), that is someone who, according to Jewish tradition, was unable to have children of his own. This close relationship between a childless ‘parent’ and an orphaned child helps integrate the young Jew into broader society.
    • They all adopt non-Jewish names (Joseph becomes Tsofenatpaneach, Hadassah becomes Esther, and Daniel becomes Balthazar).
    • They all wear the clothes and finery of the surrounding society (Joseph Genesis 41:42; Esther 2:14, and Daniel 5:29).
    • They rise to power though a combination of talent and opportunity: in the case of Joseph and Daniel through interpreting a ruler’s dreams; in Esther’s case through winning a beauty pageant.
    • They are confronted with enemies who try to bring about their downfall, focusing on their Jewish identity in order to try to rally people against them.
    • Although they survive the plots against them, their position remains vulnerable, and they are at the mercy of a ruler whose authority is unstable.

    The picture of the Diaspora Jewish leader that emerges from these similarities is a complex one. Jews in foreign lands who reach positions of influence, the Bible seems to suggest, can bring great benefit to these societies, as well as help the Jewish people. But this worldly success is not without a price. In order to reach the highest levels of society these biblical models have, to some extent, to compromise. They must change their names and their clothing, and find someone to foster and guide them in the ways of the foreign society. Even after they have done this, they are still perceived as Jews, and antisemitic opponents seek to use their difference as a political tool against them.

    Perhaps most striking of all is the sense, in all three stories, that the position of the Diaspora Jew remains one of vulnerability. Joseph, Esther and Daniel are all brought to high office through rulers whose authority is shaky. When a new Pharaoh arises, Joseph is forgotten, Ahazuerus is powerless to reverse Haman’s edict to destroy the Jews, and Darius cannot prevent the plot to throw Daniel in the lions’ den.

    What then can we conclude about the Bible’s attitude to these Diaspora Jewish leaders? On the one hand, these stories seem to confirm that it is legitimate and praiseworthy for Jews to reach high office in all societies. On the other, they suggest that such success is fragile, dependent on the good looks and talents of the individual, and the good will of insecure leaders. For an environment in which the Jewish people as a whole can take control of its destiny, we have to turn to Israel.

    It seems that, for all his success in rising to positions of leadership in Egypt, this is a realization that Joseph himself appreciates. For all the glory wealth and power he has attained in Egypt, he recognizes that his destiny is ultimately with the people of Israel in their land. The Book of Genesis ends with his request to his brothers not to leave his bones in Egypt, but to carry him back with them, when they finally make the journey home to the land of Israel.

    In others’ words

    “Israel is the only place in the world where Jews have the right and the ability to defend themselves by themselves. Israel is the only place where Jews can live full Jewish lives.”

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Paris, 28 July 2005

    On a lighter note

    “The time is at hand when the wearing of a prayer shawl and a skullcap will not bar a man from the White House – unless, of course, the man is Jewish!”

    Jules Farber

  • Vayigash


    one small step for man

    The story of Joseph reaches its climax. Finally able to turn the tables on the brothers who sold him into slavery, Joseph frames Benjamin by planting a goblet in his sack, and then demands that he remain as his slave. It is Judah who makes the plea for mercy on behalf of the brothers. And as he does so we read: “Vayigash Yehuda – And Judah drew near”. It is a simple gesture, a single step. But that movement of drawing near represents a turning point not just in the story of Joseph but in the entire history of the Jewish people.

    Throughout the stories of Genesis there is a clear pattern of hatred and hostility in the relationship between brothers. Beginning with Cain and Abel, every generation is characterized by rivalry and separation between siblings. Cain quarrels with his brother Abel, and kills him. Ishmael taunts Isaac and is exiled by Abraham. Jacob tricks Esau and then flees from him.

    It seems that Jacob’s twelve sons are destined to follow the same pattern. Taunted by Joseph’s dreams, they plot to kill Joseph and then sell him into slavery into Egypt.

    But, in a single moment, the pattern of hostility changes. Judah breaks the chain of separation and moving apart, and responds by moving closer. At that very instant the entire dynamic of the book of Genesis is altered.

    This simple gesture represents something crucial that has been missing from every sibling relationship since the start of the Bible – a sense of responsibility. “For thy servant has undertaken to be a guarantor for the boy,” Judah tells Joseph. It is Judah, the very one of the brothers who initiated the sale of Joseph as a slave, who finally recognizes that brotherhood means responsibility.

    This acceptance of responsibility is a response to the very first question asked by Man in the Bible. Accused by God of killing his brother Abel, Cain denies any responsibility for him: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asks. Judah and his brothers give a powerful answer to Cain’s question: “Yes, I am indeed my brother’s keeper”.

    Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has suggested that this is the reason why the Jewish people was only founded with Jacob’s sons: it was they who became the tribes of Israel, and gave the name the “Children of Israel” to future generations – precisely because they were the first generation to recognize the bonds of responsibility to each other. It is a lesson as relevant to the people of Israel today as at any time in our history: what binds us together as a people, more even than our common ancestry, is the sense of responsibility that we feel for each other.

    In others’ words

    Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on brotherhood and responsibility:  ‘The story was recently uncovered of a New York attorney. During the Holocaust, he signed 300 affidavits for refugees, claiming each as his brother to allow them entry into the United States. He later faced the authorities who found it hard to believe he had 300 brothers. The federal agents left his home in silence, however, after he calmly but forcefully replied that “every Jew around the world is my brother”. “This brotherhood between Israel and Jewish communities around the world is the essence of our existence.”

    Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Address to AIPAC Convention, March 2003

    On a lighter note

    Chaim and Mendel were talking about the terrible international conflicts which plague the world. “Why can’t the nations of the world just live together like one big family?” asked Chaim. “But they do”, answered Mendel. “Have you seen my family!”

  • Miketz


    coping with crisis

    While Joseph is rising to great heights in Egypt, the family he left behind in Canaan is sinking into famine and despair. Joseph’s brothers, who were raised in comfort, have no idea how to cope in hard times. So it is Jacob, who spent much of his life as a poor and hungry shepherd, who is left to stir them into action. He does so with an unusual phrase, which occurs only once in the bible: “Lama titra-u”.

    This phrase, which girds the sons into acting, is clearly crucial to the story. But what does it mean?

    The question that Jacob directs at his sons is a mysterious one. The word “titra-u” seems to be the reflexive form of the verb to see, suggesting that it may mean to look at yourself, or to make yourself appear a certain way. The ambiguity in the phrase leaves the commentators wide room for interpretation as to Jacob’s message to his sons at this time of crisis. Here are the views of four classic commentators.

    • Rashi, the great French commentator, writing in the th century, reads the word titra-u as “make yourself appear”, giving the sentence the sense of: ‘why are you pretending to others that you have plenty of food?’ In other words, he suggests, Jacob is telling his sons not to worry about keeping up appearances and to face up to the reality of the crisis that confronts them.
    • Radak (R. David Kimche, France, th century) takes a similar line, but reads the word as “delude yourself” or “fantasize”. For the Radak, the problem Jacob is addressing is not that the sons are trying to fool others, but rather that they are fooling themselves.
    • Ibn Ezra, writing in Spain in the th century, finds a similar phrase in the Book of Chronicles where it means “quarrel”, and so concludes that Jacob’s admonition is “Don’t argue with each other.”
    • Ovadia Sforno, writing in 15th century Italy, gives the simplest and most poignant explanation. Taking the verb titra-u as the reflexive form of the verb “to see”, he translates the phrase “lama titra-u?”, quite literally, as ‘Why are you looking at each other?’ In other words, why is none of you taking the initiative, why are you all expecting someone else to solve the problem?

    Four commentators, writing in different places and different ages, suggest very different explanations as to Jacob’s intention in chiding his sons. But each of the four reflects a common psychological reaction to times of crisis: denial, blame and abnegation of responsibility. For Rashi and Radak, the question relates to the tendency to deny the crisis – either to others or to ourselves: “Why are you not facing the reality of the situation?”; for Ibn Ezra, it relates to the tendency to place the blame on others: “Why are you quarreling?”; and for Sforno, it addresses the tendency to look outside of ourselves for the solutions to our problems: “Why are you looking at each other?”

    Israel, in its short history as a modern state, has had to confront more than its fair share of emergency situations. And at these difficult times, the question that Jacob posed to his sons, later to become heads of the tribes of Israel, has served as a helpful guide for dealing with crisis. As interpreted by four classic commentators, the message from Jacob for dealing with such situations is clear: Face up to the reality of the situation; don’t destroy your unity by blaming and quarreling with each other; and take personal responsibility yourself for finding a solution to the problem.

    In others’ words

    “Zionism and pessimism are not compatible.”

    Golda Meir, quoted in Marie Syrkin, Golda Meir

    On a lighter note

    A local yeshiva challenged Oxford University to a rowing contest but were beaten hands-down by the Oxford team. Before the return race, the head of the Yeshiva told his rowing captain to go 
    and spy on the Oxford team’s training session to try and find out why they were so much faster. The rowing captain came back to the Yeshiva head, beaming. “I think I’ve figured out their secret” he said, excitedly. “What is it?” asked the Yeshiva head. “Well,” said the captain, “they do everything the other way round to us.” “What do you mean?” “It’s simple,” says the captain, “they’ve got eight men rowing and only one man shouting!”

  • Vayeshev


    the reality of dreams

    “Here comes the dreamer,” say Joseph’s brothers as they plot his murder. Others dream in the Bible, but only Joseph is called the “dreamer”. Indeed, of the 9 dreams described in the five books of Moses, Joseph is associated with 6 of them. These six dreams, in three pairs, give a revealing insight into the personal development of Joseph, and at the same time give us an interesting clue as to when and how dreams are actually fulfilled.

    The first pair of dreams in the story of Joseph are those that he dreams as a young man, and tells his brothers. These dreams of his brothers’ sheaves bowing before him, and then stars representing all his family doing the same, are what enrage his brothers and lead them to sell him as a slave into Egypt.

    The second pair of dreams are those of Pharaoh’s butler and baker, locked up with Joseph in an Egyptian prison. Joseph interprets their dreams, and, as he predicts, the baker is hanged and the butler is restored to his position. But the butler forgets his promise to remember Joseph, and he remains in prison.

    The final pair of dreams are those of Pharaoh: seven thin cows eat fat cows and seven thin ears of corn eat fat ears of corn, but none get any fatter. Joseph interprets these dreams, winning Pharaoh’s confidence. The result is that he is appointed second-in-command over all Egypt and oversees the implementation of his plan to save Egypt from famine.

    These three sets of dreams chart a clear progression in Joseph’s development from a self-centered youth to an adult with social awareness and a sense of responsibility.

    • The first pair, which he dreams himself, reflect his own personal ambition, and his desire to be greater than his brothers.
    • The second pair are dreamed by his fellow prisoners, and deal with their fate; Joseph is developing an awareness of the needs and concerns of those close to him.
    • The third pair are dreamed by Pharaoh, the head of state, and address the welfare of society as a whole.

    At the same time, the series of dreams also charts a progression in terms of Joseph’s own commitment to implementing his vision: His own dreams, he simply tells to his brothers. The dreams of the butler and baker, he actively interprets. And Pharaoh’s dreams he not only interprets, but actually implements as the vice chancellor of Egypt.

    It is only when Joseph has completed both of these progressions, and has developed both a sense of social awareness and a commitment to act on it, that his dreams can be fulfilled.

    The lesson that Joseph learns is that only when he expands his circle of concern, from himself to the whole of society, and only when he increases his commitment, from simply boasting about his dreams to actively working to implement them, will his dreams actually be fulfilled.

    This may be a lesson for us in Israel today too. The modern state of Israel has been called a “coalition of dreams” – a society established by many different groups within the Jewish world, all with their own vision of the way the society should look. The dreams of the Joseph story remind us that the more inclusive our dreams are, and the more we are prepared to actually work to implement them, the greater the chance they will actually become a reality.

    In others’ words

    Judge Louis Brandeis, the United States Supreme Court judge, was a major supporter of the early Zionist movement. Hosting a reception for Nahum Sokolow in Boston in March, 1913, he responded to Sokolow’s description of the dream of a Jewish state:

    “We have listened to the unfolding of a wonderful dream. The great quality of the Jews is that they have been able to dream through all the long and dreary centuries; and mankind has credited them with another quality, the power to realize their dreams. The task ahead of them is to make this Zionist ideal a living fact. If they wish it, they can by service bring it about.”

    On a lighter note

    Chaim was talking to his psychiatrist. “I had a weird dream recently,” he says. “I dreamed that you were my mother. I found this so worrying that I immediately awoke and couldn’t get back to sleep. I got up, made myself a slice of toast and some coffee for breakfast, and came straight here. Can you please help me explain the meaning of my dream?” The psychiatrist kept silent for some time, then said, “One slice of toast and coffee? You call that a breakfast?”

  • Vayishlach


    the hardest battle

    20 years after fleeing from his brother Esau who has sworn to kill him, Jacob prepares to meet him again. For the Rabbis this meeting became the prototype showdown between Israel and the nations. Before the meeting with Esau, the Rabbis point out, Jacob prepares in three ways: He divides his camp in two, he prays to God, and he sends Esau gifts and conciliatory messages. These three tactics mirror the basic strategies that Israel has adopted in dealing with potentially hostile situations throughout the ages: preparation for battle, prayer, and diplomacy.

    But before the showdown with Esau can take place, another battle has to be fought…

    The night before Jacob’s fateful meeting with Esau, a strange encounter takes place.

    After helping his family to cross the River Jabok, Jacob finds himself alone on the other side. There, in the midst of the night, a stranger wrestles with him till the morning. As dawn breaks the adversary begs Jacob to release him, and blesses him with the name ‘Israel’ when he does so.

    It is a haunting and mysterious encounter. Who was the strange adversary? At the outset of the story, he is described as ‘a man’, at the end as ‘Peniel’, an angel. But most strangely of all, the Bible takes pains to stress that the struggle takes place when Jacob is alone [“And Jacob remained alone’]. It seems that, on one level at least, this is an internal conflict; Jacob is struggling with himself.
    It is a struggle from which Jacob does not emerge unscathed. Before he releases his antagonist, he is injured in his thigh. The injury to Jacob’s leg closes a circle in his relations with his brother Esau.
    When he was born, Jacob came out of the womb grasping on to his brother’s heel, prompting his name Yaakov (from ekev , a heel) and setting a pattern of trying to overtake his brother that will recur throughout his life. Esau himself recognizes this pattern, and after discovering that through trickery Jacob has stolen both his birthright as well as his firstborn blessings, he bursts out: “Rightly was he called Yaakov, since twice he has overtaken me (vayaakveni )”.

    Now, before he can confront Esau, Jacob has to confront himself and the justice of his cause. Only when this internal moral struggle has taken place, can Jacob go forth to the external confrontation.

    The message of the Bible seems to be that inner conviction is a key to success in any contest in which we find ourselves. Before entering into a battle, we must first battle within ourselves to be convinced of the justness of our cause.

    This message has gained powerful relevance for Israel in recent years. During these years Israel has been waging an unceasing battle to defend the lives of its civilians from terrorist groups. These groups recognize no law or humanitarian principle; not only do they deliberately target Israel’s civilians, but they place their terror bases and bomb factories in the heart of civilian areas. These despicable tactics place Israel in excruciating moral dilemmas. But Israel cannot absolve itself of the need to confront them. This continual struggle takes place at every level of society – in public discourse, within the military and in the High Court of Justice.

    It is a painful and unending struggle. But, as the Biblical account makes clear, it is this internal moral struggle that makes us worthy of the name “Israel”.
    In others’ words

    Yitzhak Rabin on Israel’s victory in the Six Day War:

    “In every sector our commanders of all ranks proved themselves superior to those of the enemy. Their resourcefulness, their intelligence, their power of improvisation, their concern for their troops, and above all, their practice in leading their men into battle: these are not matters of technique or equipment. There is no intelligible explanation except one — their profound conviction that the war they were fighting was a just one. “All these things have their origin in the spirit and end in the spirit. Our soldiers prevailed not by the strength of their weapons but by their sense of mission, by their consciousness of the justice of their cause, by a deep love of their country, and by their understanding of the heavy task laid upon them: to insure the existence of our people in their homeland, and to affirm, even at the cost of their lives, the right of the Jewish people to live its life in its own state, free, independent and in peace.”

    Yitzhak Rabin, receiving an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1967

    On a lighter note

    Comedian Jackie Mason on Jews and violence:
    “Jews don’t fight. I don’t know if you noticed that. In this country they almost fight. Every Jew I know almost killed somebody. They’ll all tell you. “If he had said one more word … he would’ve been dead today. That’s right. I was ready. One more word…” What’s the word? Nobody knows what that word is.”

    Jackie Mason, “ The World According to Me ”, quoted in Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Humor

  • Vayetze


    a dream with two meanings

    “And Jacob dreamed: And behold there was a ladder set upon the ground with its top reaching the heavens, with angels ascending and descending on it. And behold the Lord stood over it…”

    Jacob’s famous dream is something of a puzzle. The world “sulam”, usually translated as a ladder, is a hapax legomenon, that is a word occurring only once in the whole of the Bible. So the question remains open: What is the mysterious connection between the earthly and heavenly realms? And what is its significance for Jacob at this point in his journey?

    The classic commentators view Jacob’s dream as a personal assurance of protection to him. Jacob is at a moment of particular loneliness and fear, as he flees from one adversary, his brother Esau, and makes his way towards another, his uncle Laban. At this vulnerable moment the vision reassures him that he will not be alone, and that his guardian angels shall remain with him.

    But, alongside the view of the dream as a comment on Jacob’s personal situation, there are those who see it as a message on a far broader canvas. The Midrash Tanhuma (an early, 4th century, collection of Midrashic sources) sees in the dream a comment not about Jacob’s fate, but about the destiny of nations and empires:

    “’And behold the angels of God ascending and descending’: These are the princes of the heathen nations which God showed Jacob our father. The prince of Babylon ascended seventy rungs and descended, Medea, ascended fifty-two and descended, Greece, one hundred rungs and descended, Edom (Rome) ascended and no one knows how many! In that hour, Jacob was afraid and said: “Perhaps this empire will not descend?” Said the Holy One blessed be He to him: “Fear not, O my servant Jacob…”

    For the author of this midrash, Jacob’s dream depicts the rise and fall of empires which have oppressed the Jews, and the sulam is nothing other than the ladder of world history. Writing at a time when other empires had risen and fallen, but the Roman empire yet remained strong, the midrash saw the dream as a promise that this empire too would go the way of all others, and God’s promise to the Jewish people would yet be fulfilled.
    So which is it? A promise to Jacob the man, at a specific point in his life? Or a promise to Jacob the patriarch, as a symbol of the entire Jewish people, intended to resonate throughout the generations?

    A strange ambiguity in the text suggests that it is intended to be read both ways. As Jacob sees the ladder, the text tells us that “the Lord stood alav ” – the word “alav” can mean both ‘over him’ and ‘over it’. And it makes a difference. “Over him”, suggests that God was watching over Jacob, giving him a personal guarantee of protection . “Over it” suggests that God is overseeing the ladder, the cosmic rise and fall of history.

    And indeed the promise given by God in the dream seems to carry a double message of reassurance – for Jacob the man, the fugitive, about to leave his country for a strange land, and for Jacob the Jewish people, destined to wander homeless though generations of exile:

    “Behold, I am with you, and I shall protect you wherever you go, and I shall return you to this land, for I shall not abandon you until I have done everything of which I have spoken to you”

    Gen. 28:15

    This blessing, seemingly directed both at Jacob as an individual, and at Jacob as a symbol of the Jewish people, is perhaps a reminder that we all live such a dual existence: as individuals traveling our own personal journeys, and as members of a people playing out its destiny in the long history of nations.

    In others’ words

    “No human being is wealthy or powerful enough to transplant a nation from one habitation to another. An idea alone can achieve that and this idea of a State may have the requisite power to do so. The Jews have dreamt this kingly dream all through the long nights of their history. “Next year in Jerusalem” is our old phrase. It is now a question of showing that the dream can be converted into a living reality.”

    Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State

    On a lighter note

    Herzl and Freud
    It is a curious fact that for two years, between 1896 and 1898, Theodor Herzl and Sigmund Freud were living on the same street, Berggasse, in Vienna (Herzl at number  and Freud at number 19). So one cannot help wondering how different the course of Zionist history might have been, if instead of writing ‘The Jewish State’, Herzl had strolled over to the house of the famous psychoanalyst knocked on the door, and said: “I’ve had this dream…”

  • Toledot


    re-digging the wells of our forefathers

    Jewish tradition attributes a special quality to each of the three forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham is associated with chesed, loving-kindness, Isaac with gevura, bravery, and Jacob with emet, truth. Looking at the stories of the Bible, each of these attributions seems strange indeed.

    To the reader of the Bible, it is hard to understand why Abraham, who banished his older son Ishmael from his house and was prepared to sacrifice his second son Isaac, should be associated by Jewish tradition with the quality of kindness. Similarly, it is difficult to fathom why Jacob, who deceived his father and brother Esau in order to obtain his birthright, and was deceived in turn by his uncle Laban and his own sons, should be associated with the quality of truth.

    But strangest of all is the association of Isaac with the quality of gevura, heroism. While Abraham does demonstrate notable acts of kindness, and Jacob does maintain his truthfulness in difficult circumstances, it is hard to find any example of bravery in the stories of Isaac. Indeed, Isaac’s life, lived in the shadow of the terrible trauma of his near-sacrifice by his father Abraham, is one not of heroic action, but of passivity. Not only does Isaac lie passive throughout the drama of the binding of Isaac, but for the rest of his life his fate is dictated by others. His wife is chosen by his father, and his inheritance, contrary to his wishes, is determined by the scheming of his wife Rebecca and son Jacob. In what way then does Isaac merit the label of hero?

    The act which attracts the attention and admiration of the rabbis takes place in this week’s Torah portion. Isaac re-digs the wells of his father Abraham, which had been blocked up by the Philistines. In doing this, Isaac demonstrates personal courage of a very powerful sort. Many of us, note the rabbis, are valiant when it comes to fighting our own battles, and gaining reputations for ourselves. But it takes courage of a very different scale to fight a battle where the credit is not our own, or where we are not blazing our own new path.

    Isaac, who had many reasons to feel that he had spent his life in the shadow of his father Abraham, still found the courage to put aside his own personal agenda, and to perpetuate the legacy of his father Abraham. Not only did he re-dig his father’s wells, but he emphasized his commitment to continuing his father’s legacy. As the Bible tells us: “He called the wells by the same names that his father had called them”.

    What is heroism? For the Rabbis, it is putting personal ambitions aside for a greater goal. In Pirke Avot , the Mishnaic compendium of wisdom, the sage Ben Zoma asks:
    Ezehu gibor ? – “Who is a hero?” His answer: “One who manages to overcome his own temptations”. By putting aside ego and personal ambition, and committing himself to consolidating his father’s legacy, Isaac became worthy of being a model of heroism.

    In many ways our generation parallels that of Isaac. The dramatic events surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel were brought about by a remarkable generation. Looking back at the devastation of Europe that they arose from and the paucity of the resources they had at their disposal, we can only feel awe at the scope of their achievement. An air force comprised of planes reassembled from parts left as scrap by the departing British army has become the envy of the Middle East; a foreign ministry that began with a staff of 6 in a two room-office in Tel Aviv now has 93 missions and diplomatic relations with 160 countries. Rather than feeling daunted and inadequate by the scale of previous generation’s successes, the Rabbis’ approach to Isaac suggests that we should recognize that our task is different; it falls to us to consolidate these achievements and build on them. In doing so, the Bible tells us, in this task of re-digging the wells of our predecessors, we too can strive for the attribute of heroism.

    In others’ words

    Israel’s first two Israeli-born Prime Ministers describe the role of the second generation of Israel’s leadership:

    “I was fortunate to be the first among Israel’s prime ministers to be born after the establishment of the state. The founding generation struggled to establish the state and build its foundation. Our generation faces other challenges. This is a turning point in our history. During more than 2,000 years of exile, generations of Jews fought and struggled to get back the homeland we lost. Now, after the founding of the state, our main task is to secure, reestablish, and develop the homeland we got back. The torch has been passed on to us, by the generation born with the founding of the state in 1948 and in the 1950s, the generation which broke the siege of the Six Day War and repulsed the joint assault of the Yom Kippur War.
    “We have the responsibility to carry the age-old hope of generations into the next century.”

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, June 18, 1996

    “The first challenge of Zionism establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel was realized by the founding generation. “The challenge before us is to realize the second stage of Zionism and that is establishing the existence of the State of Israel as an outstanding member and the center of the Jewish People’s existence, determining its borders and ensuring its long-range security while maintaining all of the State’s vital interests.”

    Prime Minister Ehud Barak, August 12, 1999

    On a lighter note

    Mr. & Mrs. Goldberg had just got married. On their way to their honeymoon, Mr. Goldberg said to his new wife “Would you have married me if my father hadn’t left me a fortune?”
    “Of course”, she replied sweetly. “I would have married you if anyone had left you a fortune.”

  • Chaye Sara


    the first negotiation

    The negotiation conducted by Abraham for the Cave of Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, is the first negotiation over territory in the Bible. As an example of Middle Eastern negotiations it is remarkable in two ways.

    The first remarkable aspect of the negotiation is that it takes place at all. God has already promised Abraham: “To thy seed have I given this land.” Even the Hittites, from whom Abraham is looking to purchase the plot as a burial place for his wife Sarah, seem to recognize that Abraham has special rights in this place: “You are a mighty prince among us”, they say. “You may bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places.”

    But Abraham is looking for no favours, and insists on striking a commercial deal. And here is the second remarkable aspect of the account: Ephron, the landowner, after offering the plot for free, now makes a high opening demand of 400 shekels of silver. Anyone schooled in Middle Eastern bargaining would expect Abraham to come back with a low counter-offer. But Abraham doesn’t even question the price, and agrees to pay the full amount.
    In refusing to accept preferential treatment, and agreeing to pay the full price for the land, Abraham sets a precedent that is followed on two other occasions in the Bible.

    • When a plague that was threatening the Israelites is stopped, King David is commanded by God to build an altar at the place where the plague ceased. But the field belongs to Ornan the Jebusite. Ornan, like Ephron the Hittite in the story with Abraham, offers the field for free. David’s response: “No, but I will surely buy it for the full price since I will not take that which is yours for the Lord, nor offer burnt offerings without payment” (Chronicles I, 21-24).David pays 600 gold shekels for the field, where the Temple will eventually be built.
    • And the book of Joshua ends on a surprising note, when it describes the burial of the bones of Joseph in the town of Shechem. Notwithstanding the battles and conquests that fill the book, this place, the Bible notes “was land bought by Jacob from the sons of Hamor, father of Shechem, for one hundred kesitas.” (Joshua 24:32).

    It is striking, and not a little troubling, that the very three places which are the subjects of these negotiations – the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem – have till this day been the subject of such bitter dispute and violence.
    But even as the tensions over these areas continue, the three Biblical accounts can perhaps give us an insight into the nature of the bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. For each of these accounts describes not only a transaction, but also the importance of the land to each of the purchasers:

    • For Abraham, the land was important for him, in order to have a permanent resting place, for his wife, himself, and his children after him.
    • For Jacob, it was important to have a place to fulfil his promise to bring Joseph’s bones back home from exile in Egypt.
    • And for David, it was important to have a place to establish an altar, where the Temple would eventually be built.

    These three dimensions of connection to the land have resonated for the Jewish people throughout its history. The land of Israel is many things for us: As with Abraham, it is a place where after years of wandering we can build a permanent home; as with Jacob, it is a place for the ingathering of our exiles; and as with David it is place to establish a spiritual center for the Jewish world.

    In others’ words

    “The land of Israel is precious to me, precious to us, the Jewish people, more than anything. Relinquishing any part of our forefathers’ legacy is heartbreaking, as difficult as the parting of the Red Sea. Every inch of land, every hill and valley, every stream and rock, is saturated with Jewish history, replete with memories… “The Land of Israel is the open Bible, the written testimony, the identity and right of the Jewish people. Under its skies, the prophets of Israel expressed their claims for social justice, and their eternal vision for alliances between peoples, in a world which would know no more war. Its cities, villages, vistas, ridges, deserts and plains preserve as loyal witnesses its ancient Hebrew names.… I say these things to you because they are the essence of my Jewish consciousness, and of my belief in the eternal and unimpeachable right of the people of Israel to the Land of Israel. However, I say this here also to emphasize the immensity of the pain I feel deep in my heart at the recognition that we have to make concessions for the sake of peace between us and our Palestinian neighbors.”

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Address to the United Nations, September 2005

    On a lighter note

    Morrie and Sadie both pass away and go to heaven. There they find that the food is delicious, the wine excellent and the music magnificent. But Morrie is not happy. He turns to Sadie and complains: “If it wasn’t for you and your damned health food, we could have been here years ago!”

  • Vayera


    the stranger among us

    In this week’s Torah reading we are introduced to two very different models of the treatment of strangers, one characterized by openness and hospitality, the other by fear and oppression. In many ways these two models – the society of Mamre and the society of Sodom, the homes respectively of Abraham and his cousin Lot – are still with us today.

    One of the greatest tests of a society is how it treats outsiders, and this portion provides two very contrasting examples.  Abraham, still recovering, the rabbis tell us, from his circumcision at the age of 99, is sitting at the entrance to his tent in the plains of Mamre in the heat of the day, when he sees three strangers approaching. He runs to meet them, begging them to stay. He and his wife Sarah prepare a lavish feast, and wait on the visitors hand and foot.  Before they leave, one of the visitors, who turn out to be angels, tells Abraham that his wife Sarah will shortly have a baby boy who will fulfill the promise of continuity for the Jewish people.

    The treatment of the same visitors at Lot’s house in Sodom could hardly be more different. The visit to Abraham takes place in the heat of the day; the visit to Lot takes place late at night.  While Abraham keeps his door wide open, Lot is forced to close his door fast to protect his visitors from the other residents of Sodom. While Abraham is rewarded with a son for his hospitality, Lot offers to sacrifice his daughters (“who have not yet known a man”) in a desperate attempt to protect his guests from his inhospitable neighbours.  And while Abraham’s wife Sarah laughs, and eventually suckles her own child, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt, as the entire city of Sodom is destroyed in fire and brimstone.

    Taken together, the two stories suggest a simple but radical proposition: societies that welcome outsiders and nurture them ensure their own continuity and flourish; while societies that reject and oppress outsiders sow the seeds of their own destruction.

    The history of the Jewish people as strangers in other peoples’ lands is a striking proof of the truth of this proposition. Societies which have welcomed the Jews and other minorities, which have given them equal rights and the opportunity to develop their skills and to contribute to society, have historically flourished and thrived. Societies which have treated Jews and other minorities with suspicion and disdain, and which have deprived them of basic rights, have in so doing revealed a fundamental weakness at their very core, which has ultimately led to their decline.

    The remarkable consistency with which this pattern has repeated itself throughout Jewish history, with its golden ages and periods of oppression, is a striking fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham about the future of his descendants: “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you, shall I curse” (Genesis XII.2).

    After two thousand years of seeing one side of this phenomenon, as visitors in the lands of others, for the past six decades the modern State of Israel has given us the opportunity to experience the other side of the equation. No longer strangers in a strange land, but now masters of our own society, it has fallen to us to face the complex challenge of dealing with the stranger and the visitor in our own midst. And along with the other societies of the world that among whom we have lived over the centuries, we have been witness to the same indelible truth – the strangers that we welcome into our midst, and treat with hospitality and tolerance, prove to be one of our greatest sources of creativity, diversity and strength.

    In others’ words

    “Build your home in such a way that a stranger may feel happy in your midst.”

    Theodore Herzl, Diary

    On a lighter note

    When he is visited by angels, Abraham makes them a lavish feast. After the eating is over, one of the angels stands up and says: “Your wife Sarah will have a baby”. Sarah, hiding in the tent, giggles at the possibility she will have a child at her advanced age. The angel’s few words are actually the first after-dinner speech in the Bible, and till today they can teach us the three essentials of after dinner speaking: First, the speech should be short. Second, it should be pregnant with meaning, and third, it should make someone laugh.

    Heard from Rabbi Chaim Wilschanski

  • Lech Lecha


    the longest journey

    The great journey of the Jewish people, a journey of thousands of years and across much of the world, begins in this week’s Torah reading. It begins with a man, a woman, and a promise. The man is Abraham, the woman is his wife Sarah, and the promise is God’s assurance that they will become a great nation.

    The promise for the future of the Jewish people was given to Abraham in the form of two striking images. In one he was told that his descendants would be as numerous as “the dust of the earth”; in the other, that they would be as many as “the stars of the heavens”.

    The rabbis suggest that this dual image of dust and stars carries within it a message about the future of the Jewish people. This is a people that will live in continual tension – between being held up as a light to the nations, and being trampled on by oppressors like the dust of the earth. And indeed, any observer of Jewish history cannot help be struck by the degree to which Jewish history, with its dramatic swings from golden ages to periods of oppression has reflected this tension.

    Hassidic teachings see the two metaphors as a psychological tool for dealing with the varying circumstances in which the Jewish people finds itself. When we are oppressed, we should remind ourselves of the promise that we will rise to great heights, as the stars of the heavens. But when we achieve periods of comfort and prosperity, we should never forget that only too easily can we become the dust of the earth.

    In similar vein, the Hassidic teacher Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshishke told his followers: “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and discouraged, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “ Bishvili nivra ha’olam . For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “ Ani eifer v’afar . I am but dust and ashes.”

    And perhaps the building of the modern State of Israel permits us to add another layer of interpretation to the promise given to Abraham. For indeed, the remarkable history and development of the State has been one of earth and stars – of working the land, draining the marshes, digging and building, while keeping our eyes ever upwards on the visions and values that have guided our forefathers since the time of Abraham.

    In others’ words

    “When I was first here we had the advantages of the underdog. Now we have the disadvantages of the overdog.”

    Abba Eban, Ambassador to the United Nations

    On a lighter note

    What is the difference between an anti-Semite and a Jew? Ask an anti-Semite, “What do you think of the Jews?” and he will tell you: “They are a disgusting people, they cheat in business, and they think they’re better than everyone else”. “And what about Cohen?” “Cohen’s an exception, an honest man.” And Levine? “He too, is a very fine person.” But ask a Jew what he thinks of the Jews. “God’s chosen people”, he will tell you. “They enrich every society they live in. They are charitable and bright.” “And what about Cohen?” “That crook.” “And Levine?” “That son of a bitch.”

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