Friday, January 23, 2015

Siyyum Masechet Yoma: Saving A Life Trumps All

We are taught in our Torah that the purpose of Mitzvot is to enable our meaningful living process and that we are to live by them, not die by them. This is a foundational value and teaching that provides the underpinning for so much of Halacha. Our most important teachers of Jewish Law constantly remind us of this in their writings while holding onto the importance and the centrality of Mitzvot as a set of dictates for how we live.

Today, I have just completed learning MasechetYoma, the tractate about Yom Kippur. Most of the tractate, seven of its eight chapters, is about the pageantry of the Yom Kippur sacrifices and the role of the Kohanim as we recall during our recitation of the Avodah service on Yom Kippur. While sacrifices and the preparedness of those who offer them is the central subject of so much of this Tractate, it is important for us to consider Chapter Eight which references practices with which we are more familiar and associate with this day in our annual cycle of Jewish living – fasting, refraining from bathing and anointing ourselves, and other practices that are part of our daily lives.

As we complete learning this important text, the last four topics are most interesting, and I believe, the most pivotal. First of all, we again amplify the point that saving a life is tantamount to all other things. It is in the context of this discussion that we learn about the laws requiring us to feed those who need food and are physically unable to fast. We are taught that if there is even a doubt that someone’s life is at stake, we err on the side of caution, remembering this is not meant as a test of deprivation per se, for its own sake. For only in this way are we observing the basic principle that we are to live by the Mitzvot, not die because of them. We break down doors to save babies who are locked in rooms, we pull apart the rubble of a building that has collapsed to save lives, and we are strongly reminded of the importance of life above all else. Not only that, but we are adjured to rush to do these things and not question them. We are taught that the person who runs to save a life, even while “breaking” other prohibitions, is to be greatly praised. And yes, this COUNTS for Yom Kippur as well!

After this discussion, we learn about Teshuva, true and honest and intentional repentance in which we are dedicated to being better and more refined human beings. This is a soul-searching and dedicated process that is not to be taken glibly and it must be sincere. This is for ALL of us, including our leaders and those that would have us believe that they have some type of authority.

As this text and discussion continues, we are shown stories of acts of humility by the greatest of those leaders at that time, including the great lengths they would go to ask for forgiveness if they had wronged another. I kept thinking about the unique characteristic of Jewish leadership as taught in our sources that they are to lead by following the authority of G-d, not by doing as they please because of their position. It was for this precise reason that we are taught in Deuteronomy in one of Moshe’s last speeches that our leaders are to keep a Sefer Torah (book of our law) by them at all times. This was to remind them that they are stewards who act on behalf of G-d, nothing more. If this sense of accountability is not maintained, then these are not leaders! What a standard to truly think about and apply.

These stories of humility are to teach us that we all stand before G-d, that our leaders are to exemplify this standing before G-d, and that we are all to work together to protect life and preserve the dignity of each other. This is what Yom Kippur is about and this is what we are to carry with us every day of our lives as we consider how we are to purify ourselves before G-d: Remember the importance of life – yours and that of those around you; lead with compassion and empathy; always be ready to acknowledge your weaknesses as a human being; and intentionally act at all times with humility.

As we look around us at the leaders of our world and the many abuses in which they engage and the lack of consideration for others that is too often thrown in our faces, we must remember that these lessons are at the heart of our lives as those who believe in a Greater Power to Whom we are accountable. This is, I think, the BEST of religion!

We say a special prayer when we complete such a learning unit. This is mine -- to truly live and exhibit these foundational teachings in our lives!

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, January 12, 2015

WHAT A WEEK!!!!!!!! Remembering who we are and what we are supposed to be doing here in our world!



Where do I begin? Okay, what about here… “Je suis Charlie, je suis juif, je suis Ahmed.” This quote by Harvey Weinstein regarding the past week in France and the incredible assault on free speech and our basic freedom to believe, think and say as we believe captures so much of what is going on at this moment in time as we begin 2015. I am reminded by the events of this past week both internationally and even in my own personal life of the poem ‘The Hangman” by Maurice Ogden in 1951 – you remember that one, right? The Hangman comes to town to hang the Jew, the black, the communist, the homosexual, and everyone else while the bystander just looks on and does nothing, and then in the end, he too is hanged. It is chilling, terrifying, and way too real when we consider how an amazing historical reminder of a film called Selma is out during Ferguson and other cities of unrest; and free speech is being attacked in our world reminiscent of the book burnings of Krystallnacht and so many similar attacks through the Middle Ages and into present time. And of course, this is 2015!!!! Haven’t we evolved!?

We read in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) the following sentiment: What was will be and what will be was; those who say it is a new phenomenon were not paying attention the many times before the same thing happened. Or in the words of Frances Bacon and so many others who reformulated this thought (kind of like re-tweeting in today’s world), “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

I have written here and elsewhere often as well as spoken about the fluid identity of our younger generation, their reluctance to claim allegiance to a specific ideology and just be. Can one wonder? I think clearly we are on to something, because these allegiances and our adherence to them are too often fulfilling the words of Ogden’s horrific prophecy.

Returning to France for a moment, do you know who Lassana Bathily is? I certainly hope so, and if not, you should. Lassana is a Muslim employee at the Kosher grocery where more people were killed in France this past week and hostages were taken. Due to his quick thinking and action, he was able to save many of the people who were in the store at the time by putting them in the walk in freezer and disconnecting the electricity so they would be alright until they could be ushered out. Here is a Muslim man who said, when he was interviewed, that "We are brothers. It's not a question of Jews, of Christians or of Muslims. We're all in the same boat, we have to help each other to get out of this crisis." Parenthetically it should be stated that when police first encountered him, he was arrested because they thought he was with the terrorists. Sadly, he understood and just stayed calm. Of course, now everyone knows what a hero and a human being (“mensch” if you will) he is!

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches that we all have to work together to end this hatred. We have heard voices recently asking for mainstream Muslim sanctions against the extremist behaviors that we have seen too often in our world. I was looking at a montage of world events this past year and too often and in a disproportionately large amount, the horrors were related to Islamicists, whom we MUST distinguish from Muslims, who are people of faith and ethic like so many others in our world.

As Tom Lehrer taught in his own philosophical treatise penned as a popular song, this group hates that group and the other group hates this group and EVERYONE hates the Jews.

ENOUGH!!!! Let 2015 be a year of standing together with other peoples of faith and collectively protect our freedom to believe, write and think and just live! “Je suis Charlie, je suis juif, je suis Ahmed.”

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Thought for the New Year of 2015…. An Antidote to the Tom Lehrer anthem

We all remember the song about hate. This group hates that group and that group hates another group and everyone hates the …. So it goes, and so it has gone for way too many decades, centuries, since the beginning of recorded history as reflected in the Torah/Jewish Bible, when Cain and Abel had their tragic altercation. Our Rabbis tell us that there is an important missing text in that story, namely WHAT EXACTLY WAS SAID from one brother to another before our first recorded incident of fratricide. There have been a plethora of theories about what words could have possible led to such horrible results. What could they have possible been?

The day after New Year’s, here I am playing “Sunday morning,” you know, sitting with my coffee and croissant and reading the paper. Lo and behold, I come across this great commentary by E.J. Dionne entitled “Great questions about the future of religious faith” in The Philadelphia Inquirer. It can be found at http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/inquirer/20150101_Great_questions_about_the_future_of_religious_faith.html It is a quick and highly recommended read.

His point is beautiful in its simplicity. He explains that the desired mark of our pluralistic society is that we ask questions of each other and begins by quoting the well-known story of Rabbis from long ago. One asks the other “Why is it that you Rabbis almost always put your teachings in the form of a question?” The answer – That is a very good question! We learned long ago that “Questions unite, answers divide.” There is actually a question, interestingly enough, as to whom that was attributed. Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel are the leading contenders. Does it really matter? The point is that questions open doors for dialogue; declarative and absolute statements close door and draw boundaries, too often resulting in disastrous results.

Throughout the same issue of our local paper, there are many articles about QUESTIONS in the New Year. What will happen in the Palestinian debate over statehood and self governance? What will be the future of too many places in the world that are presently mired in conflict? What is going on in this country between our police forces and the people that they are supposed to be invested in protecting? How are we to heal these insurmountable rifts in our fractured world?

Dionne goes on to laud the new Pope who is really dedicated to addressing so many of these questions of conflict from the position of his foundationally held Christian values? What are those values, you ask? GREAT QUESTION!!!! These values, interestingly enough are more often than not shared by people who uphold different variances of religious faith as central to their lives. The problem is that too often those same people are so wrapped up in the accuracy and correctitude of their personal beliefs, that these become facts and the questions are lost.

I am an avid Law and Order fan. I skip the first three minutes because even with scripts and stage blood, I cannot stand to look at violence. I then LOVE watching the process. In this process, supposedly hardened people adamantly hold on to their stories of what happened and justify their despicable actions vehemently with declarative statements. As the hour winds down, the guilty party will often break down and move from statements to questions (e.g. What was I supposed to do? Can you understand how I thought that …?) Imagine if they would have begun with questions, the script would have been so different. While this might not make for great television and ratings, it definitely is something to consider in looking at the real life conflicts that are so part of our existence daily.

So what might these questions look like? Let us join John Lennon for a moment and IMAGINE. What if the Jews asked the Christians what Jesus means to them and show respect for that perspective? What if the Monotheists who fight over whose understanding of G-d is better ask Buddhists about their ways of peace? What if Protestants could ask Catholics about the importance of sacraments? What if Moslems really considered what submission means? What if religious and self identified ritualistically observant persons of faith could ask the questions that would have them look at less observant individuals with new found respect for their ethically informed behaviors? And what if we all remember what our Rabbis (teachers) of old show us – that questions are far more compelling than answers, for one question can and does spark many answers, and there is not just ONE correct way!

As 2015 dawns, let us commit ourselves to these questions. Let us resolve that we will work to understand each other and ourselves better and come to terms as much with what we are not sure that we know and ask, while questioning what we are so sure that we know along the way as well. Maybe then and only then will we learn to listen and share the beautiful ways of our religious faiths instead of using them as the weapons they were never meant to be. Then we will be able to write the new version of the Tom Lehrer song together and show that finally we have learned the lesson of Cain and Abel – NOT TO LEAVE OUT QUESTIONS! KUM BA YA!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Another Challenge to Being the Inclusive and Caring Jews and People of Faith we are

NOTE: THIS IS A RESPONSE TO AN EXTREMELY DAMAGING AND HURTFUL ARTICLE THAT RECENTLY APPEARED. IT AFFECTS ALL OF US.

Response to “Warning: Hollywood’s Coming For Your Home and Children!” by: Robert C. Avrech

I, as a Halachically observant Jewish parent, am somewhat at a loss after having read the article “Warning: Hollywood’s Coming For Your Home and Children” by Robert C. Avrech [This can be found at https://www.ou.org/jewish_action/12/2014/warning-hollywoods-coming-home-children/ ]. While I am acutely aware that individual authors do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the entire Orthodox Union in this magazine; even within the wide range of Orthodox thinking, this article does not reflect well on the organization, either in content or tone.

The repeated diatribe against LGBTQ members of our larger general and more specific Jewish community by Mr. Avrech is insulting, offensive and against more than a few Jewish standards, including not to judge another, respecting all whom G-d has created, and to not embarrass another, just to name a few. Our medical community has made it quite clear that homosexuality is a function of who one basically is and should and cannot be placed in the same category as “social and psychological cults,” political positions, families that are held “together [by] murder, rape and plunder.” While I agree on the importance of the family that is stressed by Mr. Avrech, for me this type of thinking on the part of family is reprehensible.

I would make the same point of his error in collapsing too many dynamics into one category for his attack on Feminism and all other elements that he collectively demonizes in his virulent and offensive attack on everything with which he disagrees while protecting and whitewashing so much else. I do believe in moral standards and living by an ethical system. In that spirit, since when did Fonzie and his very permissive behavior represent good ole’ family values?

The subtitle of this article is “Postmodern Hollywood is a landscape of shifting morality where the traditional family is seen as a hateful, antiquated institution comparable to Jim Crow.” Among many other things the author laments the gay couple in “Modern Family” and the fact that “homosexual radicals” have pressured A&E to cancel Duck Dynasty because “the far left has demonized Phil Robertson, the family patriarch as a homophobe because he supports traditional marriage.” We need to remember that the “patriarch” was called “homophobic” NOT because he “supports traditional marriage” but because he compared homosexuality to bestiality and other vile stereotypes.

Media often reflects the reality of our lives and should rightfully include those members of our society who are single parents, gay couples, medically impaired children, divorced, widowed, blended families, working mothers, and so many other dynamics Mr. Avrech does not consider as part of his understanding of family values.

He states as follows: “Today it is militant homosexuals who drive the agenda. Tomorrow it will be sharia-yearning Islamists demanding sitcoms about happy-go-lucky polygamists.” To call this overtly and supremely offensive does not even begin to address the problem with such flawed reasoning. In fact, there are shows about polygamist and plural marriages that represent people living a different way and one may find these to be respectful and informative, though not part of one’s landscape.

The problem of most concern is that this magazine is specifically circulated to a segment of the Orthodox Jewish population that generally considers itself educated and enlightened. Within our Orthodox community we have LGBTQ individuals who are working hard enough to reconcile their religious belief with the reality of how Ribbonu shel Olam created them. We are parents, siblings, friends, and relatives of these children and adults; and we strenuously object to having our beautiful children and family members told that they are sexual perverts not unlike pedophiles and those who practice bestiality. This is exactly the type of speech about which our texts teach “life and death are at the mercy of what we say.”

I, along with many others, feel that this article is irresponsible and does not in any way reflect the foundational Jewish values and teachings that inform how we address challenging issues in our lives. Clearly, there are many for us as observant Jews -- adopted kids, hearing impaired members of our community, "lefties" about whom the Talmud has what to say, and so many others. We as Jews learn to address these issues that may challenge our sensibilities and sensitivities with responsibility and remembering that we are all made BeTzelem Elokim and that G-d makes us the way G-d makes us for reasons that G-d has. Maybe, just maybe, this is intended to challenge all of us to check our prejudices at the door and truly see and appreciate and value each other. This is true whether we are raised by single parents, if we are LGBTQ, if we have various medical limitations, if we are divorced, and so forth.... that is not about American Hollywood and the Religion of Television and Sitcoms... its about life!

Dr. Sunnie Epstein and a group of anonymous ESHEL Parents

Please note that this letter reflects the thoughtful processing and input of no less than eight different ESHEL parents and families

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

As We Light the First Candle of Hannukah

Tonight Jews across the world begin an eight-day celebration to mark the victory of the Maccabbees over persecution, destruction of sacred places, and the horrid discriminatory practices of Antiochus that threatened the very life of our ancestors in so many palpable ways. We celebrate their bravery but not their bravado! In the moments of our joy, it is incumbent upon us to remember that as their own trajectory continued, the Maccabbees later lose their own focus and fade from history.

While songs will be sung, Latkes and Sufganiot baked and eaten (oh the cholesterol that lasts as long as the oil in the Temple!), gifts exchanged, lights lit and admired, it is incumbent upon us as ethical and caring Jews to consider the too-many unrighteous wars waged in our world that are precisely about persecuting others and taking away what we consider the basic right of practice.

The reprehensible massacre of 132 children in Peshawar today, the hostage situation in Sydney earlier this week and the other (way too many) incidents of ongoing and unbridled hatred we continue to see in our world is beyond understanding and will definitely cloud the joy of Hannukah for me tonight. We as Jews are taught that we cannot and do not celebrate the loss of life, similar to the outcry from the Hindu world today at the loss of their most precious children. That is why we diminish our cups of wine on Pesach as we recall simultaneously the miracle of the Ten Plagues as well as the necessary loss of life because of them, which we solemnly recall. And yet, there are too many of those who do celebrate exactly this excessive force for what they call “righteous causes” all around us in our world today with personal calls of “jihad” (without the requisite authority, it must be remembered) and so much else.

I often explain that we have to be careful in teaching about the Maccabbees and the other wonderful story of miraculous victory for Jews that we celebrate in just as many colorful and joyful ways in Purim. If we have to fight a battle for our own well-being and protection it is to be done in moderation and with restraint, never losing site of the “other’s” suffering. While many will disagree with me, I always hope and pray that Medinat Yisrael and her leaders would hold her to the same standard; and I do believe that this is the case most of the time. Our foundational beliefs tell us to do so. We are to defend life and to respect others and their lives simultaneously. This is not the religious teaching of extremists who scream way too loud and get recognition on the front page too often in our world today.

Let us remember not to forget our need to discipline ourselves and fight for truly righteous causes in terms of our beliefs; not those that are declared in a sense of self-righteousness. Hanukkah can teach us and remind us about restraint as well as victory for noble causes.

Hag HaUrim Sameach!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Why I Am Reluctant To Throw Books and Papers Away…

So we have just completed a most grueling two weeks of going through the traumatic process of waterproofing and updating our basement, in which my office is located. It has been a very emotional process going through the books, papers and evidence of my professional life from the past four decades. It has been a pensive, nostalgic and humbling process and at moments I marvel at how far we have come and other documentation reminds me how things are still so broken in our world. That being said, the thousands of people I have worked with, the so many communities I have been involved in and the too many students to even count are all in my memory and on the pages before me. No wonder I can’t throw anything away. It’s not junk, it’s a part of me and what I have accomplished on this earth, and that is precisely the problem.

My husband, Ken, on the other hand has no problem tossing text books and various papers and other souvenirs of his years in the medical field. Why this difference in approach? He claims I have OCD (which I define as Organized, Conscientious and Dependable, by the way!) but I really think it is something else. As a Jewish Educational professional, I so get that we are the PEOPLE OF THE BOOK! I LIVE THIS EVERY DAY personally and professionally! You never know when a D’var Torah I prepared thirty two years ago will come in handy, or a Shiyur I gave twenty years ago will be relevant to something new I am creating. On the other hand, I did toss about two dozen Hebrew primers. Okay, so I know I won’t be using any of them again.

The woefully out of date history books are another story. I actually loved teaching history and showing my students what life looked like when it ended with a 1968 publication date. It was quite valuable. Nonetheless, I finally parted with my Essrig’s ISRAEL TODAY, since today was a full thirty-five years ago. Klapperman’s HISTORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE however, still looks down upon me in my office, with its publication date of 1956. I did try to dispose of the four volumes, but the faces of my elementary Hebrew school teachers popped up in my head. What was I to do?

And then there are those souvenirs of thirty one and a half years of child rearing. Really, who can toss the twenty five model Seder plates crafted by the cute little hands of your now grown children. What would THEIR children think if they knew that today’s treasured art products are tomorrow’s dumpster feed? So to protect all of our integrity, I am holding on to my children’s projects including a rather curious paper written by our twenty seven year old daughter, Rachie in fourth grade on some type of Himalayan Ibex, thirty one year old Yoella’s attempts at rudimentary handwriting, and twenty seven year old Talie’s first Siddur. For our newly minted college student, Brian, we still have to plow through his things in a cabinet in our family room. Something for a snowy or rainy day.

My husband claims it is the past and time to let go, but wait, don’t I always teach that our past is critical in mapping out our future! To be sure, the past is indeed the past, but it is part of us and always will be. In the meantime, tonight I have to go through the one box my mother had given me years ago. The 50 pages of arithmetic from 3rd grade I will whittle down to a few, but that funny report from Seventh Grade on some weather phenomenon I will keep (maybe our son the meteorologist will want to check it out at some point) and most beloved, I will hold onto two small birthday cards – one from my father’s father, whom I never met, to me on my fourth birthday; and the other from my mother’s mother who died when I was not yet three from my first birthday. I have already traced the writing, touching that place where my past finds its roots – in those who came before me.

Monday, November 24, 2014

D’var Torah, Parshat Toldot 2014 - More Lessons from the Dysfunctional Families of Bereshit

I love going through the narratives of the dysfunctional families of Bereshit and we are still plowing through these stories, replete with important lessons and applications for all of us at this time of the year, as we bring our own families together for so many Hagim and celebrations we share as Jews and Americans. Some of these lessons apply to us and those members of our family with whom we interact, some of these instructions are for us in our communities, and yet others have to do with the larger world in which we live.

I want to begin this discussion with the ending of last week’s Parsha and how we move from family lessons to larger communal and human lessons. We see in the Avraham narratives some important instruction regarding how Judaism and Islam can and should interact. First of all, we know that we are all Children of Avraham, with his son Yitzchak the pivotal Patriarch as we continue on our Jewish journey and his other son Yishmael, the important ancestor to which Islam traces its roots. Additionally there are yet other sons from whom other nations will evolve. We focus on these brothers, however; and as we do so, we note that they are so different and yet simultaneously bound together by parentage and DNA while looking at different destinies! Make no mistake about it, we are literally related within the tradition of Monotheistic religions tracing their beginnings back to the one we credit as being the first Monotheist.

Specifically, let’s look at the end of the Parsha. In Chapter 25, verses 8 – 11 we read as follows:

8 And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. 9 And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre; 10 the field which Abraham purchased of the children of Heth; there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife. 11 And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son; and Isaac dwelt by Beer-lahai-roi.

So here we have the reunited family, with both sons burying their father together, at the site where Sarah is buried as well. What meaning do we find here? Many of us would say this is not so complicated. We know that in many cases, families that do not communicate for years, decades even, will reunite upon the death of a member of their clan. But Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks suggests that something else is going on here, something much bigger.

He teaches that our sages piece together the following story using meaningful details that the Torah provides, without explaining how Yitzchak and Yishmael appear at their father’s funeral together:

First, the place from where Isaac was coming when Rebecca saw him – Be’er Lachai Ro’ee. Only one previous reference has been made to this place (Genesis 16:14). It is the spot where Hagar, pregnant and fleeing from Sarah, encounters an angel who tells her to return. He adds, “You are now with a child, and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael [God hears], for the Lord has heard your misery.” Be’er Lachai Ro’ee is the place associated with Ishmael. Why did Isaac go there? To be reconciled with his stepbrother after his mother’s death! ….

Not only did Isaac feel guilty about the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. So did Abraham, according to this interpretation. We know that Abraham did not want to send Ishmael away. The text (Genesis 21:11) is explicit on this point. But Sarah was insistent, and God told Abraham to listen to her. Throughout Sarah’s lifetime, reconciliation with Hagar was impossible. After her lifetime, however, Abraham sought her out and brought her back. Hagar did not end her days as an outcast. She returned, in honor, as Abraham’s wife [according to the sages who say that she is actually Keturah]. That is why, at Abraham’s funeral (he died 38 years after Sarah), Isaac and Ishmael were both present. The divided family was reunited.


Sacks concludes his comments on this Parsha by observing how this family lesson translates to a more universal teaching for our time:

Beneath the surface of the narrative in Parshat Chayei Sarah, the sages read the clues and pieced together a moving story of reconciliation between Abraham and Isaac on the one hand, Hagar and Ishmael on the other. Yes, there was conflict and separation; but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past.

Now we come to this week’s Parsha, Toldot. Once we have established, if indeed we have, that Yitzchak has clearly experienced some type of reconciliation with his brother Yishmael, note what happens in his family. G-d, who seems to enjoy speaking to the women at this juncture in our history, comes to discuss Rivkah’s pregnancy with her.

As we begin Parshat Toldot, we read:

21 And Isaac entreated the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD let Himself be entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 And the children struggled together within her; and she said: 'If it be so, wherefore do I live?' And she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 And the LORD said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. 24 And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 And the first came forth ruddy, all over like a hairy mantle; and they called his name Esau. 26 And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had hold on Esau's heel; and his name was called Jacob. And Isaac was threescore years old when she bore them. 27 And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; and Rebekah loved Jacob.

Once again, we have very different children; only this time they are twins and from the same mother, the same Rivkah who brought comfort to Yitzchak after the death of his mother. Once again, there is conflict and we will have two different destinies evolve, that of the Jewish nation through Yitzchak and the Edomites through Esau. Once again there will be conflict and yet we are instructed in Devarim 23.7 to not hate the Edomites precisely because they are part of our family. There will be many battles for superiority between these two people through the years and eventually the Jewish nation will outlive the Edomites as a power to be contended with in the world. Yet, the connectedness between these two different sons – nations – destinies is clear.

We are well aware, as well, that in our Parsha, G-d instructs Rivkah in a way that does insure that Yaakov will prevail in the end. The birthright is sold by his brother to a very tired and spent hunter as Esau comes in from a day’s work; and then later each son is given the blessing intended for the other, or so it appears. Here we have a somewhat different dynamic – where the mother and father are both fully parents of these brothers; G-d speaks to the mother as G-d/G-d’s angel spoke earlier to Hagar, and the enmity between the brothers will be profound, with an attempted reconciliation in which the trust level is clearly minimal.

Further, we see another similarity, namely barrenness (AKARA) playing a role in both of these generations. The Maharsha wants us to know that in this case, we are to suspect that both Yitzchak and Rivkah are barren and that it is only through G-d’s plan and intention that they will ultimately give birth to a child – and twins at that, who will then represent various nations as was the case with Yitzchak and Yishmael and their other siblings, as reported at the end of Toldot. There is yet other unfinished business here. Rashi teaches that it is Yitzchak’s prayer that is answered for children, not Rivkah’s prayer. Why – to teach that Yitzchak was a “tzadik ben tzadik” – that is, a righteous person who is a child of a righteous person; while Rivkah was a “tzadik bat rasha” – that is, a righteous person who is a child of a wicked person, Bethuel. We are taught that the request of a tzadik ben tzadik is given priority over that of a tzadik ben (or bat, in our case) rasha in Yevamot 64a.

So what exactly is G-d setting in place here? We have families who are not easily granted or achieved and then greatly rejoiced when granted, can’t get along when born and growing up, and ultimately end in enmity…. Or maybe the point is this is NOT the end, but only the rocky beginning. It is coming generations who still have the work to complete the process – to get us back to co-existence, caring about each other and nurturing each other.

In his book, Covenant and Conversation, Rabbi Lord Sacks teaches that peace is a most difficult goal to achieve and that it is not even consonant with man’s nature. To fight, to disagree, to stand up for one’s position – all of this is much more natural to the human being than to compromise, to see the point of view of the other, and to yield on what one knows to be true. It is supremely difficult for us to accept that You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right, the actual title of Brad Hirschfield’s book.

Can’t we understand that Avraham, Sarah and Hagar and perhaps other wives gave birth to many nations from which can come creativity, cooperation and sharing instead of enmity, killing each other, and hatred? Can’t we accept that we need hunters and scholars; that is, we need both Esau and Yaakov? Can’t we come to terms that twelve brothers will NEVER agree, but we need to be invested in and concerned about each other, as will happen in our continuing Bereshit narrative?

Otherwise, what do we have and what legacy is left for us and do we leave for those to come?

I remember years ago, we had a secular Israeli young man living with us for a few weeks during the summer. His name, interestingly enough, is Ro’ee, as in Be’er Lechai Ro’ee in our Torah narrative. We were all sitting at the Shabbat table and Ro’ee who came from the Northern Galilee just simply made the statement that he thinks that the rest of Israel and the world would do far better without Yerushalayim, which is the seat of so much hatred and contention. I must say that my entire family almost had simultaneous choking spasms. WHAT DID HE SAY? But let’s think about this… it is not the place per se but the enmity that has become so associated with it and all it stands for. How sad; clearly this was NEVER intended. YERUSHALAYIM is supposed to be IR SHEL SHALOM, the city of peace, and yet… look at what we have.

As we established, the word for barrenness in Hebrew is AKARAH. From years, decades even of barrenness came our Patriarchs, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and later Yosef as well, with so many dreams and hope. The word for core in Hebrew is IKKAR – same letters and same root (Ayin-Koof-Reish) – OUR CORE AND OUR ROOTS WERE FOUND IN BARRENESS and then G-d granted life and all that it can bring. Are we using this life we are given for good; are we acting as tzaddikim b’nai tzaddikim in bringing this peace, as difficult and challenging as it is to achieve, to our world?

Will we be able to come together with those with whom we disagree, and NOT just at funerals? We have been taught that anything that is worthwhile will never be completed in one generation. Clearly the resolution of these contentious relationships has eluded all of us for much too long and maybe “hazeman hegi’ah” – Let us intentionally work to bring together Yitzchak and Yishmael in our world; Yaakov and Esau – this is that hard peace we are trying to achieve, but we need it so badly, too much depends on it!