Monthly Archives: November 2017

The delicate perception – Parshat Vayetze

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“Leah’s eyes were delicate” (Gen. 29:17). This is the way the Torah characterizes our matriarch Leah in the section Vayetze. The adjective “delicate” may refer, both in Hebrew and in English, to either weak or attractive. There are exegetes who explain that Leah’s eyes became weak because of too much crying, since she thought that as a firstborn, she had to marry Esav, who was a firstborn, too. Others explain that her eyes were beautiful, attractive and nice.

In both cases, the word “delicate” invokes a balance that must be taken care of so as not to break it, so as not to let it get worse, if weak, or not to ruin it, if beautiful.

On the other hand we may also ask why the Torah has chosen to describe Leah according to her eyes. The word “eye”, in all its forms, appears about two hundred times in the Torah. Only in about ten of these it refers to the actual vision organ, the physical eye. In the other 190 instances the word “eye” refers to “sight”, “appearance” and “opinion”; it refers, then, to the perception of reality. For example, “he raised his eyes” refers to sight; “it stays the same” [lit. “it stays in its eyes”] refers to appearance; “it is good in his eyes” or “he found favor in his eyes” refers to opinion.

Let’s go back to Leah. It may be that the Torah does not speak about her physical eyes, but rather her way to perceive the world, her way to see. Leah had a very delicate, fragile, sensitive way to perceive reality.

“He loved Rachel, too, more than Leah” (Gen. 29:30). Since the text says “too” it implies that he adds the love for Rachel to his love for Leah. Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi, Narbonne 12th-13th centuries) explains: “this announces that he also loved Leah, even though he had not chosen her at the beginning to be his wife, but he loved her as a man loves his wife. He just loved Rachel more” (commentary on Gen. 29:30)

Yaakov loved her, but she did not perceive it: Yaakov’s love of his other woman, Rachel, made Leah perceive herself as hated. “The Lord saw that Leah was hated” (Gen. 29:31) and Radak explains that “Yaakov did not hate her, but loved her. Since he loved Rachel more, she thinks herself hated; i.e. that compared to Rachel she was hated” (commentary on Gen. 29:31).

It is as if she said “if he does not love only me, if it is not me the most loved one, the only explanation is that I am hated”. This feeling tainted her very existence. God offered her the possibilities of feeling different, of strengthening her self-esteem by giving birth, by creating new life. But Leah saw herself always as “the hated one”. Without the ability of feeling his husband’s love, she entered an existential struggle against her sister Rachel and against her own existence. Every child she bore had the imprint of this struggle: Reuven “because God saw [raah] my suffering”; Shimon “because God heard [shama] that I am hated”; Levi because “this time my husband will join me [yelave]. Only with the fourth child she calms down a bit and proclaims “this time I will thank [odeh] God” and therefore he was called Yehudah. But then, again, she continues her competition with Rachel without seeing, appreciating, perceiving the love that existed in Yaakov.

Through Leah’s life and her fragile perception, the Torah poses before us the possibility of learning to transcend our own fragile perception, so as to see the world beyond our own limitations, so as not to let us base our conclusions about ourselves on the competition with our fellows.

“Leah’s eyes were delicate”. And what about ours? It is upon us to make them either weak or beautiful, it is upon us to make our perception either negative or positive.

Abraham’s pains – Parshat Haye Sarah

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When God commanded Abraham to take his son Yitzhak and to offer him as a holocaust, the Torah introduces the subject by stating that God put Abraham to a test: “nissah et Abraham” = He tested him (Gen. 22:1). We may translate it, in modern terms, “He challenged Abraham”.

The Torah defines this divine commandment as a test, a challenge. Following this definition, our Sages understood that other commandments God gave to Abraham are, indeed, challenges: “Abraham went through ten challenges and he came out successful of all of them, showing how great was Abraham’s love of God” (Pirke Avot 5:3) What were these ten challenges? They don’t tell, but Maimonides, in his commentary to the Mishna, explains that all of them are written in the Torah and provides us with the sources (Rambam’s commentary to Pirke Avot 5:3).

Abraham, like a hero, overcomes the challenges because his love of God bestows on him extreme strength! Abraham’s deep faith and total trust on God make us generally thought of him as a person with no pain or sadness. God is with him and he knows it: is there any place for sadness? Why should he feel pain, if everything is because of the Lord and for the Lord?

A more detailed reading of the Torah, however, allows grasping Abraham as a plain human being, with all the strengths and weaknesses any other person has. His faith wasn’t for him a shield against adversity or against the ups and downs of the soul. Yet it offered him the tools to overcome them. Good things elicit nice feelings, while adversity elicits rage, sadness or pain. Nobody is free of it and nobody should be free of it, since this is a natural expression of the human soul. Abraham teaches us that even while having an intimate dialogue with God, pain shows up. It is all about not to succumb because of it, but rather to dare feeling it in its sharpness and overcoming it.

Parshat Haye Sarah begins telling about Sarah’s death: “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her” (Gen. 23:2). He feels the pain of the loss – death is a definite separation even for one who holds a constant dialogue with God. The old patriarch, however, does not succumb: he gets up from his pain so as to make all the necessary arrangements for the burial. He then comes back to his pain, inhuming Sarah. And then again, he recovers to care for the future – his son Yitzhak’s marriage and the welfare of all his other children.

There is an interesting midrash, in the Tanhuma collection (Parshat Ekev, art. 3) that echoes Abraham’s pain because of Sarah’s death and presents us with a list of afflictions of Abraham. Even the ten challenges stated elsewhere are here part of those afflictions! The text shows Abraham not as a superhero, but as a human being like you and me that teaches us, through his life example, to cope (he does as we should) with God, with the shocking reality, the feelings and the faith. It is not an exhibition of suffering as trophies; the midrash teaches us how important it is not to avoid pain when it arrives: only by dealing with it we can overcome it and feel better on. Pain always leaves consequences, but if we do not face it, it will not remain as a rest, but as a steady burden.

The text says: “Whoever feels pain at the beginning, will be calm at the end. And no one has felt pain at the beginning more than Abraham: he was thrown into the oven, had to abandon his father’s home, was chased by 16 kings, went through ten challenges and buried Sarah. But in the end he was calm, as it is written: ‘In time Abraham became old, while God had blessed him in everything’ (Gen. 24:1)(Midrash Tanhuma, Ekev, art. 3)

Somewhere over the rainbow – Parshat Va-yera

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A tragedy that completely changes life is not, thanks God, a regular happening. It may nevertheless happen, God forbid.

Before calamity strikes, one can always try to change things so as to avoid it. But once that disaster has begun nothing will change the course of events: “Rav Yosef said: Once permission is granted to the angel of destruction, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked” (BT Baba Kama 60a).

Still, many times we see how difficult it is for a person to leave the place where tragedy is striking. It may be so because he or she either tries to change what cannot be changed, or hopes for a miracle based on virtues achieved, or bemoans loosing any material or spiritual investment. Even after all is over there are those who remain stuck in the psychological place of the disaster and ruminate: “Maybe it’s something I’ve done?”, “Perhaps I’ve could done differently”, “Maybe it happened to me because I was too confident on my future”. Those who surround the person, from near or afar, also look for a reason, sometimes to comfort, sometimes to accuse: “He chose that and this befell him”, “it’s God’s will”, “God knows why He did it to you”, “she thought she had the future in her hands… and oops!”

It’s about being too judgmental to oneself or to the others, about sinking in remorse or beating others.

However, the book of Job teaches us that God does not rule His world according to a fixed and inexorable formula. There are things that happen with no explanation, not always the reason is clear, not always there is a connection between the person and what happens to him or her beyond their power and will.

Lot and Sodom also teach us that this kind of judgment is neither efficient, nor correct, nor just.

Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim were destroyed by a cataclysm brought by God because the people there were extremely corrupt, wicked and cruel. A simple tale: absolute proven wickedness brings divine punishment.

And then there is Lot. Was he wicked? No: he cares for the strangers in need of a roof. Was he righteous? No: he does not hesitate in offering his daughters as a pray to Sodom men’s savage lust. Lot has both a good side and an evil one. He was undoubtedly brought up in a good family, together with Abraham, and was influenced by an ethical education. Yet the wicked environment he lived in must have influenced him, too.

He survived, but suffered a tragedy. We may tend now to connect the dots looking for justification: his men caused a conflict with Abraham, he chose to live in a place where “the inhabitants were very wicked sinners against the Lord”, he offers his daughters as a sexual pray to the men of Sodom, he lingered instead of running for his life even when the angels announced the imminent destruction. Lot himself may have had similar thoughts.

The angles said to him: “Flee for your life, do not look behind you [aharekha in Hebrew]… lest you be destroyed” (Gen. 19:17). You can survive the tragedy, but do not look behind you so as not to be absorbed by the catastrophe. But may the actual looking back to the city cause Lot’s death? Rabbi Yaakov Lorberbaum reminds us that everybody saw the catastrophe and nothing happened to them! (Nahalat Yaakov on Gen. 19:17). it is not about not looking at the cities, but not to look “behind you”. The Hebrew term for “behind you” is “aharekha”, which has a double sense: behind you (what you had, what you’ve left, what you’ve done) and after you (what will come after you, what you’ll leave after you). The angels say to Lot: do not try to find in your deeds a reason for the tragedy, do not ask “if I’ve done good why is my future destroyed?”, do not rely on your good deeds to stop a disaster that is already happening. Do not afflict yourself with what happened or would have happened. There is a tragedy and it is not directly connected to you, even if it strikes you. Now save yourself and continue building your life.

And Lot’s wife? She looked behind him… not her! She tried to explain what happened as related to Lot, his behind and his after: It’s something he has done? Perhaps he didn’t do enough? What has become of the good future we were to have because of him?

She rubs salt into the wound, she preserves (as with salt) the situation without giving place to rehabilitation, she spreads salt on the ground and doesn’t let anything grow in it. She is fixed in her own salting way until she herself becomes the salt.

Don’t look for a reason neither behind nor after you, don’t judge cruelly neither yourself nor others. Enhance your ways, thank God for your possibility of going on and help others to build and progress.