Torah Blog


A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
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Genesis 25:

29. And Jacob cooked pottage; and Esau came from the field, and he was famished. 30. And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I beg you, with that very red [adom] pottage; for I am famished; therefore was his name called Edom. 31. And Jacob said, Sell me this day your birthright. 32. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point of death; and what profit shall this birthright do to me? 33. And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he swore to him; and he sold his birthright to Jacob. 34. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink,  and rose up, and went his way; thus Esau despised his birthright.

What stands at the heart of this scene is a moment where a man feeds his famished brother. This is an act of giving; and Esau clearly trusts Jacob, as one does not eat food from the hand of someone one does not trust. Jacob does not withhold the pottage and say, "This is mine. You can die for all I care." They are connected, and, as twins, their destinies are intertwined.

The Hasidic masters suggest a symbolism for Jacob and Esau as the "godly soul" and the "animal soul" inside us. One approach to the animal soul - bodily needs - is to try to stamp it out altogether through fasts and other ascetic actions.  But I have discovered that when I try to ignore or deprive the lower soul, it doesn't work out well.[1] The body has its own reactions to being ignored, and will manifest an illness or other symptoms until it is heard.

So the path to spiritual growth is rather one that has to take our "lower" needs into account, to listen to them and engage with them in their own language so that they are "happy" and "satisfied."

In the Torah narrative, Esau, the lower soul, is starving and at death's door. In a case like this, it is up to Jacob, the higher soul, to stop and feed him, for his nourishment lies in Jacob's hands. They are brothers, twins. Jacob cannot simply withhold the pottage. Thus, the higher soul cannot withhold from the body its rest, quiet time, food, social life, and the other things it needs.

However, Jacob also does not have to act and react only on Esau's terms. If Jacob knows that the birthright will be much better used by him, as a more evolved being, he can offer Esau what he needs (food) in exchange for what will nourish him himself (birthright blessings). That is both fair and wise, and good for both ultimately, because it is not good for the lower soul to receive too many material blessings, as it will only make it coarser and more material.

Thus, Jacob speaks in Esau's language to offer him what he needs, but does not give in to life on Esau's terms, rather doing what he needs to do to work on his own, more elevated plane. The higher soul must not simply surrender to the lower soul's demands; it must use its wisdom to offer an exchange, such that while the self is getting its immediate needs fed, the soul is free to pursue its higher agenda. Balancing these two souls is the key to healthy spiritual and physical functioning.


[1] Rabbi Aryeh Nivin's coaching approach similarly holds that the "lower soul" cannot simply be ignored, and must be worked with skillfully.


Choose Life!

"Choose Life!" Some thoughts on the inner workings of Free Will. Video dvar Torah.



In recent months I keep coming back to this Torah, and I feel compelled to write about it. I am not going to write much that is original here, but it comes from the heart.

The Midrash (Tanchuma Shelach 7) tells us when the twelve spies were traversing the land of Canaan, G-d sent a plague so that the inhabitants would be busy burying their dead and hence not notice the spies (in the Talmud, G-d smites a governor or noble, to the same end ).

But the spies came back and reported this as yet another negative trait of the land. The Talmud (Sotah 35a) records:

It is a land that eats up its inhabitants. Raba expounded: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I intended this for good but they thought it in a bad sense. I intended this for good, because wherever [the spies] came, the chief [of the inhabitants] died, so that they should be occupied [with his burial] and not inquire about them.

So many times things have occurred in my life that seem very negative, and I have moaned and complained about them. Yet it is so easy to imagine that behind the scenes, these very occurrences are the very best thing that could have happened to me.

I just can't see it, as I have on my negative glasses, my kvetchy "spyglasses".

The G-d described in the Talmudic passage would no doubt say to me, a little sharply, a little compassionately: "Hey, hey, sister, a bit of gratitude here. Everything has been organised for your own good, so stop whining and get with the plan." (Well, maybe not quite in those words...)

And the royal route into doing that is gratitude practice. Daily, hourly, every moment. Thank you Hashem for all of it.



Abraham and the wisdom of the East

Of all Abraham's trials, Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac seems the most difficult. The command to leave behind everything he knew and set off for an unknown land was also very challenging.Both required a tremendous amount of trust, and both demanded that Abraham disconnect from what he knew and loved, from his family of origin and homeland, and then from his beloved son and his very own reason and logic and belief in a just G-d.

Interestingly enough, Genesis 25:1-6 tells us that Abraham married another wife named Keturah, and that although he left his estate to Isaac, while he lived he mysteriously "gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east."

The meaning of this verse is not clear. Many have suggested interconnections between Abraham and the religions of the east, pointing to the names of the Hindu Uber-God Brahma (grandsire of all human beings) and his wife Saraswati as being very close to Abraham and Sarah  - though we must note that the former are gods and the latter humans. Some even claim Abraham to be descended from Indian Brahmins, implying the Eastern wisdom was his legacy; yet that is not the picture the Torah presents, rather that Abraham was unique in his surroundings, and that he sent gifts to the East, not vice versa.

In any event: a central tenet of Hinduism, and later Buddhism, is to release ourselves from attachment and the suffering it causes. The fact remains that Abraham began to learn this wisdom via the tests G-d put him through, and perhaps this constituted the "gifts" he passed on the East, there to be developed further (the earliest Hindu Vedic texts are dated 1700 BCE, slightly after Abraham's birth 1800 BCE approx.)

Buddhism has developed the spiritual goal of striving to non-attachment, in the deepest sense, in that non attachment means unity with all things and freedom from desires (it is more than simply letting go of family or beliefs, but that could be the initial external step necessary to become enlightened). Judaism did not demand this of its followers, but taught other kinds of wisdom.

Nonetheless many Jews are attracted to Buddhism, with its sophisticated teachings about the inner life, and one could perhaps posit that since the it would have been impossible to have a system with both Jewish emphases on doing in this world and striving for spiritual growth within the material (the hardest challenge), and Buddhist emphases on non-attachment and liberation from desires, that both of these "Abrahamic" (or partially Abrahamic) religious systems needed to grow separately so as to develop and nurture their truths. Now, Jews can finally reclaim their portion of Buddhism, the sparks that are truly Abrahamic, and that has developed for all these years, while not accepting the rest.

(Zohar 1:99b).
“Rabbi Abba said, ‘One day I happened upon a certain town formerly inhabited by children of the East, and they told me some of the wisdom they knew from ancient days. They had found their books of wisdom, and they brought me one… I found in it all the ritual of star-worship, requisites, and how to focus the will upon them, drawing them down… I said to them, ‘My children, this is close to words of Torah, but you should shun these books, so that your hearts will not stray after these rites, toward all those sides mentioned here; lest – Heaven forbid – you stray from the rite of the blessed Holy One! For all these books deceive human beings, since the children of the East were wise – having inherited a legacy of wisdom from Abraham, who bestowed it upon the sons of the concubines, as is written: To the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still alive, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East [Genesis 25:6]. Afterword they were drawn by that wisdom in various directions”


[1] I thank Prof. Alan Brill for his help in making elements of this dvar Torah more accurate. The idea grew out of a Bibliodrama on Akedat Yitzchak at Andy Kohlenberg's house, parshat Vayera 5755. Thanks to Nicole Koskas who came up with the profound insight about G-d teaching Abraham to disconnect, and to Zev ben Yechiel for pointing out that Brahma's wife is Saraswati.
N.b. if Ketura was the mother of the sons sent to the east, I would have thought that Brahma's wife would be called something along the lines of Ketura. Some say Ketura is Hagar, and apparently the Saraswati river has a tributary named Ghaggar, but here the speculation is beginning to stray rather far.


Parents Take a Step, Children Take the Next

G-d's command to Abraham in Genesis 12:1 "Lech lecha - Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you" is one of the most powerful and significant verses in Jewish history, setting in motion a journey of peoplehood, ethics, and worship still in force today.

Yet the verses just before it explicitly tell us that Abraham's father Terach had set out already, to go to the land of Canaan (the mystery land is even named!). So we have to ask, why is G-d telling Abraham to "leave your father's home and go to a land i will show you" when his father was already on the way (presumably with son Abraham
in tow)?

This question could bear a number of answers. But I want to suggest that if we read it symbolically, then it can be taken as a statement of parents and children. Many, if not all of us, have traits and talents we inherited from our parents, but are able to take one step further.
Our parents travel a certain distance with their own skills, and then we get to travel the next part of the way and maybe even reach a destination they could never have achieved. Without them, however,  maybe we couldn't get there at all.

And our children will take this inherited spiritual material one step further too. So we should appreciate what our parents have done with what they were given, and that they have travelled the part of the journey that they could. Moreover, without them we wouldn't be who we are and where we are. Everyone does their part.

So Terach might not have known, or been aware, of why he needed to get up and go to Canaan. He might have thought he was going for trade reasons. But in reality, a deeper intention was carrying him along, part of the Divine plan. He was taking Abraham part of the way (to Haran, to be precise), so that Abraham could continue from that springboard. Abraham would eventually have to separate from him, per "Go from your father's house...", but, hopefully (and despite the deep ideological gap between the two), with deep gratitude for everything he had received.