Parshat VaYchi: A Family Becomes a Nation


This week’s parasha closes Sefer Bereishit (Genesis). As we prepare to close the book on this sefer, it is important to briefly review its broad themes.



Bereishit’s earlier parshiot recount the events which lead to the creation of a special group of people meant to maintain a close relationship with Hashem. At first, it appears that Hashem ‘hopes’ to establish a close relationship with all of humanity; all people are created in the “image of God” (“tzelem Elokim”). We noted that the Torah implies that humanity’s being patterned after the image of God is not simply a description of human nature, but a tripartite *mission*:

* Humanity is to emulate Hashem’s creativity by procreating.
* Humanity is to emulate Hashem’s mastery by mastering the created world.
* Humanity is to emulate Hashem’s moral perfection by behaving morally.

“Tzelem Elokim” is not handed to us on a silver platter, it is a mission. Humanity is granted the basic potential to achieve mastery, creativity, and morality, and is charged to actualize this potential. We are not born “images of Hashem”; we are born as mirrors, so to speak. The choices we make determine whether we will stand before Hashem, reflecting His image, or face in other directions, and therefore reflect things other than His image.


If “tzelem Elokim” is a mission, then it can be failed. Indeed, humanity begins to disappoint early on. Adam and Hava’s older son, Kayyin (Cain), murders his brother, failing as a tzelem Elokim (as demonstrated from the text). Kayyin’s descendants readily absorb his example of readiness to murder, clearly a basic moral failure. Kayyin and his “line” are eventually replaced by Shet (Seth) and his descendants.

As humanity grows beyond the proportions of a single family, its moral failure becomes epidemic. Humanity successfully exercises mastery and creativity, inventing crucial industrial processes, musical instruments, and agricultural methods. But morally, humanity has failed. Hashem ‘regrets’ having created humanity and destroys all of the failed “tzelem Elokim”s along with the animal kingdom, saving only the righteous Noah and his family.

The destruction of the world “uncreates” creation, reversing the step-by-step process of creation with a parallel step-by-step process of destruction. But the seeds of recreation are planted before destruction: Hashem commands that all species be preserved in preparation for the step-by-step recreation of the world. In reestablishing the world, Hashem repeats to Noah and his family the three-part “tzelem Elokim” mission, this time stressing the prohibition of murder in order to address humanity’s past failure to achieve the moral part of the “tzelem” mission.


Hashem’s “disappointment” leads Him to change the original plan of maintaining a close relationship with all of humanity. Consequently, the next major event the Torah reports is the appearance of Avraham. Until this point, we hear nothing of “special” nations and “special” lands, of Hashem’s being “the God” of a particular nation. Avraham’s appearance changes all this. Hashem has decided that while humanity at large has failed the tzelem mission, a special group of devoted individuals can achieve this mission (and perhaps eventually lead the rest of humanity closer to this goal).


At this point, we began to focus on the selection of the Avot and the rejection of various figures along the way. The Torah presents the greatness of the Avot as emerging from their successfully meeting the challenges with which they struggle. The strength the Avot display as they develop is what makes them Avot. We traced the growth of Avraham’s trust in Hashem from his initial uncertainty of Hashem’s promises, to the breathtaking faith he manifests at the Akeida (Binding of Isaac). Along the way, we learned about Avraham’s struggles for justice (saving Sedom), his courageous self-sacrifice (saving Lot from captivity), and other lessons too detailed to sacrifice to synopsis. We also examined the rejection of Yishmael for his vicious, cynical sniggering.


We paused at Hayyei Sara to look at the perspective of the Avot on Eretz Yizrael as a place to *live,* not merely a place to make “posthumous aliyah.” Avraham’s purchase of the Cave of Mahpela focused our attention on his insistence on establishing a permanent personal hold on a piece of the holy ground and his joy at being able to establish permanent *residence* there (not merely permanent *decedence* there). The same pattern appears later with regard to other Avot, who consistently stress the *field* of Mahpela — the place of fruit-bearing, living trees — and do not focus only on the cave, the place of burial. As we will see shortly, this theme recurs as Sefer Bereishit comes to a close.


We turned our attention to the development of Ya’akov, through his deception of his father and brother, his development under Lavan’s careful “tutelage,” and his heroic self-transformation in facing Hashem’s angel and his brother Eisav. His triumph arrives when he merits the blessings of spiritual destiny which Yitzhak had given him in potential twenty years before. The change of Ya’akov’s name to Yisrael signifies a change in his character, in his approach to challenges. We also noted the rejection of Eisav aqs leader of God’s future nation and found text-grounded justification for this rejection.


We next turned to the development and selection of Yehuda and Yosef as leaders among Ya’akov’s sons. We first traced Yosef’s development from self-centeredness and immaturity (noted by Hazal and criticized freely by them and medieval commentators) to Hashem-centeredness, maturity, generosity, and greater mastery of the complexity of leadership. Next, we examined Yehuda’s development, pinpointing his greatness in his ability to courageously admit wrongdoing and learn from it, and his capacity for self-regeneration in taking responsibility for his brothers and protecting his vulnerable father’s feelings. In this context, we briefly touched upon Re’uvein’s mistakes (Hazal refer to him as a “bekhor shoteh,” a “foolish first-born”), which, despite his courage, spell his rejection as leader of Ya’akov’s sons.

Most recently, we traced Yosef’s manipulation of his brothers in his effort to see if they have done teshuva (repented) for selling him and learned the lessons of responsibility necessary for the family to reunite and continue to grow toward its destiny as a nation.


In all of these discussions, our aim has been to understand the Torah and to try to take “personally” all of the lessons these stories offer us in conducting our own lives.



When you write a coherent essay, you make sure (or you ought to, anyway) to structure your paragraphs so that the paragraphs “hold hands” — you embed transitions in the end of each paragraph and the beginning of the next paragraph in order to communicate to your readers that you are “shifting gears,” shifting focus to a new idea, and in order to draw them with you as you move on.

Parashat Va-Yhi is just such a transition. Sefer Bereishit follows the relationship between Hashem and humanity from its universal beginnings to its focus on a small group, and then through the process of the selection of great individuals (“Avot”) to found and lead that group. Sefer Shemot develops a different theme: the creation of a national consciousness and national character (see also Abravanel’s introduction to Sefer Shemot, which expands on this theme). Parashat Va-Yhi is the transition between the “individuals” theme of Bereishit and the “nation” theme of Shemot.

Imagine that you didn’t know that Sefer Bereishit ends with Parashat Va-Yhi. What signs of transition to a new theme could you find in the parasha?

“NO JEW WILL BE LEFT BEHIND” (apologies to MBD):

Sefer Bereishit follows a pattern of selection and rejection of sons: Yitzhak is chosen and Yishmael rejected, Ya’akov is chosen and Eisav rejected. In contrast, Parashat Va-Yhi confirms all of Ya’akov’s sons as members of the future nation, participants in the destiny promised to Yisrael by E-l Shad-dai (recall Parashat VaYishlah). Although some sons are singled out in our parasha for criticism or praise, the fact that no one is rejected despite his flaws shows that Hashem (and Ya’akov) has decided that this entire group will found the nation. Since the theme of Sefer Bereishit is the selection of founders for the nation, and since this process of selection seems to have reached completion, the Sefer is complete.


This brings up an important observation: our discussions of Va-Yeishev, Mikkeitz, and Va-Yigash have shown that the sons of Ya’akov are highly diverse people. Re’uvein, Yehuda, and Yosef, for example, are all leaders, but their personalities and leadership styles are clearly divergent. The centerpiece of this week’s parasha — Ya’akov’s blessings to his sons — confirms and deepens this observation. Each of Ya’akov’s sons faces different challenges and brings different strengths to bear on them. The fact that no one is rejected from participating in creating the Jewish nation indicates that all of these different strengths are necessary. Besides combining the legacies of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov, the nation needs the internal diversity of different perspectives in order to adequately achieve its mission.

To illustrate with just one example, the different strengths of the various shevatim (tribes) have provided leaders whose characteristics enable them to successfully lead in the diverse places and times in which we have needed leadership. Bringing a nation out of enslavement and facilitating the nation’s communication with Hashem at Sinai (Moshe, Shevet Leivi) demands a different set of leadership characteristics than does leading a nation into a new land, conquering it, and apportioning it (Yehoshua, Shevet Ephrayyim). Unifying a splintered, tribally organized nation and establishing a permanent dynasty (David, Shevet Yehuda) demands a different set of leadership capabilities than does leading the exiled nation through a time of critical emergency with wisdom and faith (Mordekhai, Shevet Binyamin). There are dozens of such examples; despite Yehuda’s basic hold on the monarchy, different circumstances have demanded leadership from other tribes as well. The leadership resources provided by this internal diversity have enabled us to succesfully face challenges of all kinds. Hopefully, Hashem will continue to provide us with leaders to help us deal with the challenges we encounter in the present and future.

[Of course, as Jewish history demonstrates, the “down side” of this internal multiplicity is that separate entities can work not only with each other, but also against each other.]


As mentioned above, Sefer Shemot develops themes of our national development. These themes first begin to resonate in a number of specific contexts in our parasha. Of course, the basic idea that the Avot will produce a nation has been clear since as early as Parashat Lekh Lekha, when Hashem promises to make Avraham into a “great nation.” Yitzhak and Ya’akov also receive promises of nationhood. But national themes have slipped into the background in more recent parshiot: VaYeishev, Mikkeitz, and Va-Yigash focus largely on events within Ya’akov’s family and make little or no mention of the national aspect. But Va-Yhi brings national themes back into focus in two different ways:

1) Specific mention of the future nation or national institutions such as laws and tribes.

2) Mention of the eventual return to Eretz Cana’an (after the Egyptian exile), or restatement of the family’s / nation’s significant connections to Eretz Cana’an.


Parashat Va-Yhi is not only where familar national themes (“I will make you into a great nation”) begin to reappear in the text, it is also the place where some national themes appear for the first time. When Ya’akov repeats to Yosef the blessing he received from E-l Shad-dai, he is repeating a theme we know well:

BEREISHIT 48:3-4 —
Ya’akov said to Yosef, “E-l Shad-dai appeared to me at Luz in the Land of Cana’an and blessed me. He said to me, “I shall increase you, multiply you, and make you into a throng of nations; I shall give this land to your children after you as a permanent possession . . . .”

But when Ya’akov turns to Shimon and Leivi and curses their anger for their massacre of Shekhem, his words evoke the picture of a nation established on its own land:

BEREISHIT 49:5-7 —
“Shimon and Leivi are brothers; weapons of violence are their wares. In their council shall my soul not come; in their gathering shall my soul not rejoice, for in their fury they killed men, and by their will they uprooted oxen. Cursed is their anger for its strength, and their fury for its hardness; I shall split them up among Ya’akov and scatter them among Yisrael.”

Shimon and Leivi must be scattered throughout the national homeland in order to guarantee that they do not once again come together and wreak violence out of measure. Sefer Yehoshua reports that indeed, Shimon receives a portion of Eretz Yisrael surrounded by the portion of Yehuda, whose job is apparently to control Shimon. And the Torah tells us many times that Leivi never receives a portion of Eretz Yizrael, and receives only individual cities scattered thoughout the land. (As we will see, Leivi’s “punishment” turns out much different than Shimon’s!) In terms of our theme, what is clear for the first time is that each of Ya’akov’s sons will be part of a nation, that this nation will conquer and occupy Cana’an, and that each son’s descendants will receive a portion of the land (except Shimon and Leivi). This already suggests the tribal arrangement of Kelal Yisrael which we know from later on in the Torah, but its appearance here is unprecedented.

Ya’akov’s mention of Ephrayyim and Menashe’s growth into nationhood is also not a “new” story — they are merely being included in the destiny of Ya’akov’s children — but what Ya’akov says to Yosef just after blessing the two boys sounds a theme which will occupy the first half of Sefer Shemot: redemption from Egypt and return to Cana’an:

Yisrael said to Yosef, “I am going to die; Hashem shall be with you and return you to the land of your fathers . . . .”

Ya’akov’s blessing to Yehuda also sounds a theme which telegraphs “national institution” as a basic assumption. Not only will Yehuda be the acknowledged leader of his brothers, as Ya’akov predicts as he begins the blessing to Yehuda, but Yehuda’s authority will continue far into the future:

“The staff [“shevet”] will not be removed from Yehuda, nor law-making authority [“me-hokek”] from between his legs, until Shilo comes, and to him is the gathering of nations.”

The mefarshim (commentators) debate whether “Shilo” refers to David, the Messiah, or some other personality or event; they also debate the meaning of “yik’hat amim.” But it seems clear that Yehuda is being given broad authority to rule and to make or enforce laws — a promise which can refer only to a polity governed by laws: a nation.


One other very important term which appears for the first time in our parasha is the term “shevet” — literally, “staff.” In fact, this term appears only three times in all of Sefer Bereishit — all three in our parasha: 49:10 with regard to Yehuda’s authority, 49:16 with regard to Dan, and 49:28 with regard to all of the sons of Ya’akov. Note that this word is used here in different ways, since “staff” can symbolize a number of things. With regard to Yehuda, “shevet” refers specifically to leadership (the leader carries a special staff, similar to a scepter, as we see later in the case of Moshe); with regard to Dan, “shevet” seems to mean something very similar to “shofet,” “judge”; and when used to refer to all of the sons, “shevet” means what we mean when we refer to the “Twelve tribes” — each tribal leader carries a staff (“shevet”) representing his authority and separate identity from the other tribes, and this term is borrowed to refer to the entire tribe itself.

Although many of us are used to thinking of the sons of Ya’akov as the “shevatim” (“tribes”), the fact is that until now, they have been only individuals, not founders of tribes which comprise a nation. As our parasha looks forward through Ya’akov’s blessings into the distant future of the nation and anticipates the national themes of Sefer Shemot, the parasha begins to suggest the notion of tribes.


We have already noted that our parasha anticipates the themes of exodus and redemption in Ya’akov’s assurance to Yosef that Hashem will eventually return the family to Cana’an. Yosef also assures his brothers before his own death that Hashem will “remember” them and eventually return them to Cana’an. But our parasha also directs our attention to the dual connections established by the Avot with Eretz Cana’an:

1) Hashem’s promises to the Avot that they / their children shall inherit the land.

2) Avraham’s purchase of a permanent personal “foothold” in the land — the Field of Mahpela.

Ya’akov brings us back to a familiar theme (if you were with us for Parashat Hayyei Sara) when he commands his sons with his final words to bury him in the Cave of Mahpela:

BEREISHIT 49:29-32 —
He commanded them, saying, “I am to be gathered to my nation [=die]; bury me with my fathers in the *CAVE* in the *FIELD* of Efron the Hittite; in the *CAVE* in the *FIELD* of Mahpela which is before Mamre in the Land of Cana’an, the *FIELD* which Avraham bought from Efron the Hittite as a possession. There they buried Avraham and Sara his wife; there they buried Yitzhak and Rivka, his wife; and there I buried Le’ah — [in] the purchase from the Hittites of the *FIELD* and the *CAVE* in it.”

The Torah echoes Ya’akov’s language in reporting the burial itself:

His sons carried him to the Land of Cana’an and buried him in the *CAVE* of the *FIELD* of Mahpela, the *FIELD* which Avraham had bought as a grave-possession from Efron the Hittite, [which is] before Mamre.

Ya’akov’s request to his sons seems very repetitive and wordy — he mentions the field and the cave three times, mentions twice that the field and cave were bought from Efron the Hittite, mentions unnecessarily that Avraham was the one who bought the field, and goes through the entire list of the people already buried there. What is so important about these details?

If Ya’akov’s only intention is to give his sons directions to the field and cave, it should hardly be necessary to list the current occupants of the cave, or who originally owned it and who bought it, or to mention “field” and “cave” so many times. Why such formality, detail, and repetition in describing this piece of real estate? And why does the Torah repeat some of these details in narrating Ya’akov’s burial?

If you recall our discussion of Parashat Hayyei Sara (or our brief review of it above), you will remember that we understood the complex and somewhat bizarre negotiations between Avraham and Efron the Hittite as an unspoken struggle on the part of Avraham to buy a piece of land as a personal foothold in Eretz Cana’an, and on the part of the Hittites to prevent him from gaining such a foothold. The “fierce politeness” of the Hittites and the “insistent obsequiousness” of Avraham betray this struggle, hidden beneath a veneer of genteel gentile generosity and gracious but firm Abrahamic refusal. Avraham avoids accepting a free grave-space among the grave plots of the Hittites and succeeds in purchasing not only a grave plot of his own, but a field to go with it; not simply a place to go once he is dead, but also a place to live! And indeed, as the Torah tells us on several occasions subsequent to this sale, the Avot do live in Hevron, the city of the Field of Mahpela (and in which the Cave is located).

Why is Avraham so eager to buy a plot in Eretz Cana’an? Avraham has been promised by Hashem that he will receive Eretz Cana’an. But as he grows older and sees that no process seems to be unfolding which will grant him the land, he begins to wonder whether Hashem intends to fulfill His promise. Eventually, he asks Hashem directly: “How do I know that I will inherit it?” (15:8).

Hashem responds by correcting Avraham’s misunderstanding of the promise: Avraham himself would not inherit the land; he would “join his fathers in peace,” dying without participating in the struggle for the Land. After four generations of exile and enslavement in a foreign country, his descendants would return to conquer and inherit Eretz Cana’an. Avraham places complete faith in this promise, but he is somewhat disappointed that he himself will not inherit the land. Shortly afterward comes his opportunity to gain a personal stake in the Land: the death of his wife and the chance to use the search for a grave for her as a lever to manipulate the “people of the land” into selling him a plot of his own (since they cannot get away with outrightly refusing to give a burial place to the bereaved Avraham). [For the full development of this theme, our discussion of Hayyei Sara is available those interested.]


Ya’akov recognizes the danger facing his sons as they settle into Egyptian life and raise their families under Yosef’s providence and protection: that they will forget about Eretz Cana’an and their connection to it, that they will not maintain the hope of returning to their land. In order to guard against this, he communicates to his sons the message of return: Hashem will eventually bring them back from Egypt to Cana’an. To reinforce their memories of the land and the importance it holds for the family, he paints a vivid snapshot of one important piece of it — the family home and burial plot in Hevron:

1) He reminds them of the story they all know well of Avraham’s cleverness in negotiating with the crafty Hittites, his insistence on buying his own burial plot, and his unblinking willingness to pay an exorbitant sum for it, a story which reminds them how important Eretz Cana’an was to their great-grandfather Avraham.

2) He reminds them that what Avraham bought was not just a burial place, but also a field, a place of life (the same emphasis on the field that appears in our parasha features prominently in the original account of Avraham’s purchase; that account stressed that the field was full of trees, certainly a symbol of growth and vitality in Tanakh), where Avraham and Yitzhak lived and where they themselves were raised by their father.

3) He reminds them that this plot of land also connects them to the Land by virtue of its status as the family burial ground: Avraham and Sara, Yitzhak and Rivka, and Le’ah are all buried there. We all understand the deep emotional connection people maintain to the places their parents or earlier ancestors are buried; Ya’akov is trying to strengthen this connection.

These strategies highlight two aspects of our relationship to Eretz Yisrael (which we discussed at Hayyei Sara):

1) “The Field”: Our connection to the Land as our living homeland, our place to live our lives, serve Hashem, raise our families.

2) “The Cave:” Our connection to the Land as our ultimate homeland, the place where our dead are buried. Even if we are not able to live there, it is the place we acknowledge as our homeland, the place to which we return to bury our dead because we want them to rest at home.

Unfortunately, the “Cave” gets much more press nowadays than the “Field” — it is much easier to make a casual touristy visit to the touchstones of Jewish history in Eretz Yisrael (Kotel, graves, archaeological sites, museums, etc.) than it is to make a personal commitment to the “Field” (living in the land, spending time learning in yeshiva there, etc.). But the fact remains that the “Cave” connection serves an important function today as it did then: to maintain our connection to the land even when we have no access to the “Field.”

This may explain why Ya’akov is so insistent on being buried in Eretz Cana’an and why Yosef later displays the same desire. Besides his own personal desire to be buried with his wife, parents, and grandparents, Ya’akov also knows that for his sons, bringing his body back to Cana’an for burial will also be a powerful experience which will renew their connection to the land and refresh their desire to return to it. The procession to Cana’an is not merely a funeral, it is also a pilgrimage to the family home.

Yosef understands this, and therefore, when he reminds his brothers that Hashem will eventually return them to Cana’an, he makes his brothers swear that they will bring his bones up with them. This promise not only expresses Yosef’s desire to be buried in Cana’an, it also guarantees that Bnei Yisrael will not forget their connection to the land.



This may sound extreme, but the best way to prepare for learning through any book of Tanakh is to lightning-read the entire Sefer. This is the first step in my own preparation, and I consider it valuable for the following reasons:

1) It quickly reminds us of all the things we think we remember but really don’t. This is especially true of books of the Humash besides Sefer Bereishit, since Bereishit is nearly all stories, which are easier to remember than the legal portions of the Torah. Do you, for instance, recall much of the content of Parashat Mishpatim? How about Parashat Tzav? Parashat Shofetim? Got the picture?

2) It helps us overcome the “snapshot” effect: we tend to fall into the trap of looking at Humash in a disjointed way if we look at only one parasha at a time. It is crucial to merge the “snapshots” into a “movie” by taking a quick read through the Sefer (preferably in Hebrew),

a) feeling the momentum of the story line,

b) tracing the development of characters over long stretches of text (which we miss if we look only at “snapshots”), and

c) recognizing the major themes of the Sefer.

As you cruise through the text at high speed:

a) Note questions and patterns which seem significant.

b) Write an outline of the major events/sections of the text and consult it as you prepare each week so that you maintain that sense of bird’s-eye view which the lightning-read gives you.

c) Ask yourself why the Torah includes particular events and leaves out others.

Shabbat shalom

Parshat VaYigash: The Unmasking


Before we dig into Parashat Va-Yigash, let us just take a moment to review the narrative units of Sefer Bereishit as we have understood the Sefer in these shiurim. If you would like to receive shiurim you missed, please drop me a line at (not at one of my other email addresses!).

1) The nature of humanity and its relationship with Hashem:

a) Parashat Bereishit: the human as image of Hashem (Tzelem Elokim)
b) Parashat No’ah: Humanity’s failures and Uncreation (Flood)

2) The selection and development of Avraham:

a) Parashat Lekh Lekha: Developing faith (Berit bein HaBetarim and Berit Mila)
b) Parashat VaYera: Ultimate sacrifice (Akeida, rejection of Yishmael)
c) Hayyei Sara: A personal foothold in Cana’an (Cave of Mahpela)

3) The selection and development of Ya’akov:

a) Parashat Toledot: Deception and flight (Theft of blessings)
b) Parashat VaYeitzei: Measure for Measure (Lavan’s deceptions)
c) Parashat VaYishlah: Regeneration (returning the berakhot)

4) Selection and development of Yosef and Yehuda (& rejection of Re’uvein):

a) Parashat VaYeshev: Yosef’s development
b) Parashat Mikketz: Yehuda’s development
c) Parashat VaYigash: see below!

Although we devoted VaYeshev to Yosef and Mikketz to Yehuda, it should be noted that both of these parshiot are about both Yehuda and Yosef. I found it easier to develop each figure separately, but the stories are deeply intertwined.

VaYigash is where Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, whom he has been manipulating since Parashat Mikketz. The (many) questions below are in response to requests from subscribers for more guidance in preparing for the shiur. Hopefully, the questions will help bring out the meaning of the events in the parasha, although we may not have time to deal with all of the questions. Ideally, questions should occur to us naturally as we read the Torah. Attempting to respond to questions and draw themes from them will acclimate us to formulating questions on our own.
1) Once Yosef rises to power, why doesn’t he send a messenger to Ya’akov with the news that he is alive and well? What could possibly justify letting his father suffer a moment longer than necessary?

2) Why does Yosef play all of these games with his brothers? What is the point of treating them harshly, accusing them of spying, demanding that they produce Binyamin, repeatedly returning the money they have paid him for Egyptian grain, imprisoning them, and planting his chalice on Binyamin so he can accuse him of theft? What does Yosef hope to accomplish?

3) Look closely at every single interaction between Yosef and his brothers. What is Yosef trying to accomplish in each case?

a) Why does he accuse his brothers of being *spies,* in particular?

b) What does he hope to accomplish by throwing his brothers into jail?

c) Why does he then release them all — except Shimon — and why does he give the brothers the reason he does?

d) What seems ridiculous about Yosef’s first plan — to send one brother home to Cana’an to get Binyamin while the rest remain in jail — and his second plan — letting all the brothers (except one) go home to get Binyamin in order to prove that they are not spies?

e) Why does Yosef secretly return the brothers’ money to them?

f) When the brothers return to Egypt with Binyamin, why does Yosef entertain them at his house?

g) Why does Yosef’s servant bother to tell the brothers that the money they found in their sacks was a gift from Hashem? Why not just inform them that he received their payment for the grain, and leave it to them to wonder about the source of the mystery money?

h) Why does Yosef bless only Binyamin and give him more gifts than he gives the others?

i) Why does Yosef seat the brothers by age order?

j) Why does Yosef *again* arrange to have the brothers’ money returned to them secretly?

k) Why does Yosef plant his chalice in specifically Binyamin’s sack?

4) What seems to be the disagreement between the brothers and Yosef’s servant over the fate of the one whose sack contains the chalice, and the fate of the rest of the brothers? Why are they arguing? Where have we seen such an incident before? What other parallels are there between this incident and the previous one?

5) [Parenthetically: what hint is there in Yehuda’s speech to Yosef that Ya’akov still maintains the hope that Yosef is alive somewhere?]

6) [Again, parenthetically: what linguistic parallels are there between this story and Megillat Esther?]

7) Once Yosef has revealed himself, why does he again ask if Ya’akov is alive — didn’t he ask this question to the brothers during the feast at his house?

8) If Yosef really believes that the brothers were only doing Hashem’s work in selling him to Egypt (see 45:5 + 7-8), why has he been manipulating them? Why not just reveal his identity immediately?

9) What ironic reversal is there in this story in the use of the word “yarad” (“to do down”)?

10) What meanings are hinted to — besides the obvious — in the use of the word “mihyah” in 45:5 and “le-ha-hayot” in 45:7?

11) What exactly does Ya’akov mean in 46:30?

12) [Parenthetically: what hints are there of cultural/ethnic/etc. friction between Ya’akov’s family and the Egyptians (with an eye toward Sefer Shemot)?]

13) [What is funny (humorous) about the interaction between the brothers and Paro about their occupation of shepherding?]

Two basic questions challenge us as we read the story of Yosef’s manipulation of his brothers (no negative connotation intended): Why he does not send word ASAP to his suffering father that he is alive? What does he aim to accomplish by this process of manipulation? The answer to both questions may be the same. Hopefully, analyzing the story will yield answers.

In the course of the story, Yosef accuses his brothers of particular crimes, arranges situations which will make them appear guilty of certain other crimes, and threatens or executes particular punishments. The brothers react in particular ways to these situations. In this shiur, we will summarize these events and “unpack” them.


Yosef first accuses his brothers of spying on Egypt, an accusation they deny. Later, we learn that Yosef asks them at this time about their family. The brothers respond by mentioning Yosef, Binyamin, and Ya’akov. Yosef rejects their explanations, insisting that the brothers are spies; he imprisons all of them, but then allows one to go home to bring Binyamin in order to prove that their story is true. After three more days, Yosef decides to allow all of them to go home, and holds back only Shimon as “collateral.”

Why does Yosef accuse the brothers of spying, in particular? What purpose does this serve in his plan? This accusation allows him the opportunity to ask about their family, which he wants to do for the following reasons:

a) In order to find out if his father is still alive.
b) In order to demand that Binyamin be brought to him, so that he can carry out the rest of his plan.

In our discussion of Parashat VaYeshev, we mentioned that Yosef might accuse the brothers of spying as a mida ke-neged mida (“measure for measure”) reaction to their having hated him for “spying” on them and reporting to Ya’akov about their misdeeds (see Abravanel). This should start us looking for other signs of mida ke-neged mida patterns in what Yosef does to the brothers as the story continues.

Let us now look closely at this spying accusation and the question of what Yosef wants the brothers to think: imagine you are a counterintelligence agent and you think you have caught a ring of agents spying on your country. Can you imagine letting one of the spies go home to get proof that he and the other suspects are not spies? If he really *is* a spy, what would prevent him from returning home, reporting to his CIA (Cana’anite Intelligence Agency) superiors what he has seen in Egypt, and then returning to Egypt to try to prove that he is not a spy!

Imagine if, when Moshe Rabbeinu sent spies to scout out Eretz Yisrael, the spies had been caught — can you imagine that their captors would have let one of them go home under any circumstances? If the people of Yeriho (Jericho) had caught the spies Yehoshua had sent to scout the city, would they have let one return to Yehoshua for any reason?

If Yosef really wants the brothers to take him seriously in this accusation of spying, how can he agree to send one of them home to get Binyamin? And how can he then decide to let *all* of them (except one) go back home? Does Yosef really want the brothers to believe that he thinks they are spies? If not, what does he want them to think?

Perhaps he wants them to know that even he *himself* does not take the accusation of spying seriously. He wants them to see how transparent the accusation is, that he is not really giving them all this trouble because he truly believes they are spies.

This fits well with what happens next: when Yosef changes his mind and decides to allow almost all of the brothers to go home, he gives the brothers a reason: “Because I fear Hashem.” Now, remember that Egypt is a thoroughly pagan society; when the brothers hear from Yosef, the vice-king of the thoroughly pagan country, that he fears not the sun-god, or the river-god, or the harvest-god, but Hashem (“Ha-Elokim,” the One God), it must sound to the brothers as strange as it would have been to hear Yosef say, “You know, I really think Egypt stinks. I’d much rather be king of Cana’an any day.” It also makes this situation even stranger than before: not only is the Egyptian vice-king willing to let all of the accused spies (besides Shimon) go home, he says he is doing so because he fears and worships the same God they fear and worship!

What impression is Yosef trying to encourage in the brothers’ minds?

Yosef is trying to do something he has done before: to portray himself as merely a conduit for Hashem. In our discussion of Parashat VaYeshev, we traced Yosef’s development as a leader and moral figure. One of the high points we identified was when Yosef stood before Paro and gave Hashem all the credit for his dream-interpreting abilities. We also noted that Yosef’s giving Hashem all the credit is not only humble, it is *smart.* Paro cannot take advice from a foreigner/slave/prisoner, but he can certainly take advice from a Deity (*The* Deity), so Yosef couches his fourteen-year famine survival plan as part of the Hashem-given interpretation of the dream. Throughout his interaction with Paro, Yosef is but a vehicle for Hashem’s communication with Paro. Paro recognizes this and stresses Yosef’s connection with Hashem as crucial in selecting him to execute Egyptian agro-economic policy and save Egypt from starvation.

Yosef now employs the same strategy of trying to convey the impression that he is only Hashem’s emissary. But this time, he is trying to convince his own brothers. He accuses them of spying (which may start them searching their own past for mida ke-neged mida triggers of this accusation), but then behaves in a manner which reveals that he himself does not believe this accusation! When he mercifully decides to let them all (but one) go home, his rationale is his fear of Hashem! The improbability of monotheistic faith in the ruler of pagan, polytheistic Egypt is more than the brothers can be expected to take as simply coincidence. Yosef means for them to believe that Hashem is using him, the “Egyptian ruler,” as a puppet, that He is manipulating the vice-king in order to punish them.

This becomes even clearer to them when the Egyptian ruler allows all of them to go home *except one.* They then realize that Hashem is punishing them, mida ke-neged mida, for their cruelty to Yosef: just as when they sold him, they returned home with one less brother and had to face their father with the news, so they now return home with one less brother and must face their father once again. But this time, the missing brother is missing because he helped make Yosef “missing.” All of the brothers are jailed for three days to demonstrate what Yosef felt when he was thrown by them into the “bor,” the pit (we have seen earlier that the Egyptian jail is referred to as a “bor,” a pit); and Shimon is kept in jail to parallel the sale of Yosef.

The brothers clearly see the “hand of Hashem” raised against them for what they did to Yosef. Yosef’s strategy is smashingly successful, as Re’uvein now turns to the others and castigates them for ignoring his warnings not to harm Yosef. Yosef himself confirms what the brothers suspect — that Hashem is behind all of this — by saying that he is releasing them because he fears Hashem.

Yosef now commands that the brothers’ grain money be secretly returned to them and placed in their luggage. On the road back to Cana’an, one brother discovers his returned money; the others discover their money once they have returned home. They fear that when they return to Egypt, they will be accused of having stolen the money. Indeed, when the brothers eventually do return to Egypt with Binyamin and are led to Yosef’s house, they fear that they have been brought there in order to be enslaved, in punishment for stealing the money they found in their luggage. But Yosef’s servant assures them that their money has been received by Yosef.

How does planting the brothers’ money in their sacks serve Yosef’s plan?

When they find the money, the brothers ascribe its appearance in their sacks to Hashem: “What has Hashem done to us?!” (42:28). Clearly, they believe that Hashem is using the “Egyptian ruler” to wreak vengeance on them. But what do they believe is Hashem’s purpose in putting the money in their sacks?

When they return to Egypt for the second time, they reveal their concern: they are afraid that Yosef has invited them to his house in order to capture and enslave them for stealing their grain-money from him. Hashem, the brothers believe, has returned their money so that the Egyptian ruler will believe that they have stolen it from him. They fear that they will become slaves through these ill-gotten gains — exactly the fate to which they sent Yosef in return for ill-gotten gains (the money they made from his sale)! They see Yosef as Hashem’s tool in executing a mida ke-neged mida punishment on them for selling Yosef. They probably suspect that Yosef planted the money in their sacks (Abravanel supports this idea), but they see him as a tool of Hashem — which is exactly what he wants them to think.

The brothers are nervous about entering Yosef’s house, afraid that bad things are in store for them; before they enter, they confess to Yosef’s servant that as they journeyed toward Cana’an, they found their money returned to them, hidden in their sacks. They insist that they do not know who put their money back in their sacks. Yosef’s servant, who has been told to expect precisely this admission from them, assures them that he has received their money, that the money they found in their sacks could only be a “treasure” planted there by . . . “Hashem!”

But the servant is laughing at them on the inside as he reassures them: he sees how his master, Yosef, has woven a web around the brothers, nudging them into concluding that Hashem is punishing them for their mistreatment of their brother. As he assures them that the returned money they found was a gift for them from Hashem, he knows that they are drawing a different conclusion: Hashem can hardly be “in the mood” (so to speak) to reward them. Recent strange events have convinced them that they are enmeshed in a divine process aimed at paying them back for selling Yosef. Perhaps the servant dispels their fear that the money is being used by Hashem to land them in slavery, but he confirms their suspicion that Hashem is somehow behind the whole matter. Perhaps, they conclude, Hashem only wanted to make them nervous.

Yosef then entertains the brothers at his house with a feast and presents them with gifts.

[Side point: when Yosef greets the brothers at his house, he greets them with the word “Shalom,” and then asks after the “shalom” of their father; they respond that their father has “shalom,” he is in peace. It is ironic, of course, that Yosef, the brother about whom the Torah told us long ago, “lo yakhlu dabero le-**shalom**” — “they could not speak to him peaceably” — has a whole conversation with them about “shalom”!]

Yosef’s gifts to the brothers create an opportunity to see how the brothers will deal with his favoring Binyamin by giving him five times as much as he gives to each of them. Once again, a child of Rahel is receiving special treatment: how will the other brothers deal with it this time?

But the test is not a subtle one, meant only for Yosef’s private purposes, to see if the brothers will react with their old jealousy; it is clearly meant for them to *know* it is a test. Yosef wants the brothers to believe that he is the tool of God, the puppet of Hashem, sent to test them. That this is Yosef’s goal is is suggested also by the next point: Yosef seats the brothers in age order, to their amazement; he wants them to see that he has access to information he would have no way of knowing besides having a secret link to Hashem. This contributes to their impression that this Egyptian ruler is a tool of Hashem; either he is in direct communication with Hashem, or Hashem has taken some sort of subtle control of him and is acting through him.

These strategies — seating his brothers in age order and lavishing more gifts on Binyamin than on the other brothers — are so transparent, so obvious to the brothers, that it seems clear that Yosef wants them to understand that Hashem is “present” in this entire affair, addressing their old sin, their sale of Yosef.

Yosef then commands that his own chalice be hidden in Binyamin’s sack. And once again, he instructs that all of the brothers’ money be hidden in their sacks. He loads the brothers with grain and sends them home, off to Cana’an, but then sends a servant to pursue them and accuse them of having stolen the chalice. The brothers deny the theft, condemn the “theoretical” thief to death, and bind themselves to slavery in the event the chalice is found (to express their certainty that none of them are involved in the theft). When the chalice is found in Binyamin’s sack, the brothers contritely return to Egypt to face Yosef; in his presence, they condemn themselves to slavery. Yosef, however, offers to release them all except for the “thief.” It is here that Yehuda steps in with his impassioned plea to Yosef to free Binyamin. Yosef can no longer hold back; he reveals his identity to his brothers.

Why does Yosef hide the brothers’ money in their sacks once again?

By now, it is “clear” to the brothers that the Egyptian ruler has been “posessed” by Hashem; he has become Hashem’s puppet to punish them for their sin. They see the pattern this ruler has set, a pattern of accusing them of crimes he does not really believe they have committed: first accusing them of spying (and then allowing them to go home!), then planting their money in their sacks (and, shockingly, explaining that Hashem has given them a gift!). They also note his repeated mention of Hashem, his inexplicable faith in the same God they worship. They gape at his unexplainable access to knowledge of their family (from out of the blue, he asks them if they have a brother and a father, as they report to Ya’akov; and he also seems to know in what order they were born!). They also notice that he performs actions which remind them of their sin (accusing them of spying, imprisoning one brother and sending the others home without him, providing them with ill-gotten gains which they believe will result in their own enslavement, testing them by openly favoring Binyamin).

Now, as they leave Egypt for the second time, he plants their money on them again. But they seem to have no fear this time that they will be punished for the theft. This makes sense: they know that Yosef planted the money on them the first time as well, and he did not accuse them of theft that time. So why does he plant the money at all?

Yosef wants them to know that he has put the money there now because he wants them to understand that just as he put the money in their sacks, he put the chalice in Binyamin’s sack as well. And just as they know that Yosef knows they have not stolen the money, Yosef wants them to know that he does not truly believe that Binyamin has actually stolen anything. He wants them to see that the accusation against Binyamin is a fabrication, an entrapment sprung by him, just as he filled the sack of every brother with the money he brought. Yosef wants them to know that Binyamin is being used in order to pressure them: will they sacrifice themselves in order to free him?

Binyamin is the obvious choice for Yosef because he is Rahel’s son, as Yosef is. Will they protect their younger, favored brother? Yosef also assumes (correctly) that Binyamin has replaced him in his father’s affections. Will the brothers protect their father this time from the pain of losing his most beloved son?

The hiding of specifically the chalice, as opposed to something else of Yosef’s, adds a nice touch to the picture: Yosef’s servant tells the brothers that this is the cup his master uses to perform “nihush,” divination. He uses this very cup to to discover secret knowledge and see the future. The cup is valuable not because it is silver or because Yosef is sentimental about it, but because it is his divining-tool. Not only have the brothers stolen his cup, they have stolen his special “nihush” cup! [Scholars point to the Ancient Near Eastern practice of using a cup to divine: the diviner would examine the configuration of drops of water, wine, or oil, and judge the future from them. Another practice was to put precious metal pieces into the cup and judge by their positions.] The divination cup adds one more piece to the picture they have of Yosef as possessing supernatural knowledge: he is a confidant of Hashem’s, a diviner.

Before the chalice is found, the brothers deny the theft and condemn the thief to death and themselves to slavery if the chalice is found. But Yosef’s servant seems not to accept their self- condemnation. The servant says, “Yes, it shall be exactly as you say,” but then proceeds to change the verdict: no one is to die, not even the thief, and the innocent brothers are not to be enslaved. Why?

It is interesting that the brothers’ suggestion for punishment — death and enslavement — parallels in some way the fate they had in mind for Yosef long ago: first they planned to kill him, then they decided to sell him into slavery. The brothers pronounce this sentence on themselves to show how sure they are of their innocence, but Yosef’s servant, who knows of their guilt, knows that the sentence must be modified for Yosef’s plan to unfold properly.

There is also an echo here of Ya’akov’s death sentence on whoever among his camp has stolen Lavan’s “terafim,” his household gods. Lavan, we know, practices “nihush” (he says so himself); Yosef does as well. Yosef practices “nihush” with his chalice, which is what is stolen here; some mefarshim suggest that Lavan practiced “nihush” with his “terafim,” which are stolen by Rahel. In both cases, the accused (Ya’akov, his sons) pronounce a death sentence on the thief (Rahel, Binyamin); in the first case, Rahel appears to suffer an early death as a result, so it is no shock that Yosef wants to avoid getting anywhere near repeating that tragic event — after all, it was his own mother who was the casualty of Ya’akov’s unwitting curse!

A similar “disagreement” over the fate of the guilty takes place between Yehuda and Yosef once the chalice has been found and the brothers have returned to Egypt: the brothers (represented by Yehuda) volunteer to suffer enslavement along with Binyamin, but Yosef insists that only Binyamin will be enslaved. What is this disagreement really about?

While before, the brothers’ willingness to be enslaved for the theft is a rhetorical device to express their certainty of their innocence, here it is a sincere offer, motivated by the overpowering sense of guilt which has taken hold of the brothers as a result of all of Yosef’s efforts to make them believe that Hashem is punishing them. Yehuda, who speaks for the brothers, does not admit that Binyamin actually stole the chalice — they all know that just as Yosef placed the money in their sacks last time and this time, he also placed the chalice in Binyamin’s sack. But the brothers believe that Hashem has created circumstances which have brought them to justice: they are being punished for a theft they did *not* commit in retribution for a theft they *did* commit. Yehuda’s words (“*God* has found the sin of your servants”) confirm that he recognizes the hand of Hashem in the story: Hashem has found their sin and is punishing them. Yosef’s accusations are transparent; he has successfully convinced them that he is a tool of Hashem.

But Yosef refuses Yehuda’s offer. Why? Is it not enough that the brothers — especially Yehuda, whose advice it was to sell Yosef in the first place — feel remorse for their action and are willing to suffer for it? What more does he want? As we have discussed in previous weeks, Yosef wants to see the brothers take responsibility for two things: 1) Binyamin and 2) Ya’akov. It is only once Yehuda mounts a powerfully emotional assault on Yosef, expressing concern for his father’s feelings, that Yosef recognizes the depth of the brothers’ teshuva and decides the time has come to end the charade.

1) There are many situational and linguistic parallels between the Yosef story and Megilat Ester. Find them and explain the relationship between the stories.

2) The story of Avraham’s servant’s search for a wife for Yitzhak is an excellent example of someone’s trying to increase the likelihood of the success of his mission by making it appear as if Hashem is really behind the whole mission. Comparing a) Avraham’s command to the servant and the story of the servant’s encounter with Rivka to b) the servant’s retelling (to Rivka’s family) of Avraham’s command and his encounter with Rivka, shows that the servant greatly emphasizes the role of Hashem in guiding him to select Rivka. Once he has done this, the family can only respond “me-Hashem yatza ha-davar” — “The matter has been decreed by Hashem!”, and they have no choice but to agree to the proposed marriage to Yitzhak. (One other example is discussed in the shiur on Parashat Mattot regarding the Bnei Gad and Bnei Re’uvein.)

3) It is quite ironic, after reading through this story in which Yosef more or less “plays Hashem,” punishing his brothers with mida ke-neged mida punishments, guiding them to teshuva, etc., to hear him say in Parashat VaYhi, “Ha-tahat Elokim Anokhi?”, “Am I in Hashem’s stead?” How would you explain this apparent inconsistency?

Shabbat shalom

Parshat MiKetz: Yehudah

What are the Avot made of? To find out, Hashem tests them: “Sacrifice your son for Me.” You and I will probably never face that kind of test. But the sons of Ya’akov face tests like those we may encounter in our own lives. Yosef, for example, isolated from his family and surrounded by an alien culture, struggles to resist the powerful sexual temptation of his boss’s wife. Modern working life can certainly present the same challenges. If I may sully this forum by presenting one real-life example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that a former employee of a major brokerage firm sued the firm for dismissing him; the boss’s wife had allegedly been pursuing him with all the eagerness of Mrs. Potifar, and he, unlike Yosef, succumbed, partially in fear of losing his job if he offended her. When the boss found out, things got messy, and the philanderer got the axe.

Yehuda, also separated from his family (voluntarily: “va-ye-red Yehuda me-et ehav”), also faces sexual temptation, in the form of his daughter-in-law, disguised as a woman for hire. How Yehuda handles this challenge and the web of complexities it spawns is one of our topics this week.

Re’uvein, as well, becomes enmeshed in sexual impropriety of some sort, whether he sleeps with one of his father’s wives (following the plain sense of the Torah) or merely interferes with the balance of intimacy in Ya’akov’s relationship with his wives (following some midrashim). Sexuality, a powerful but often hidden force, is ever-present in human relationships and in the religious context. How the Avot handle these matters illustrates the degree of self-mastery we should aspire to, as well as the path of courageous repentance we must take if we stumble. The Torah hides the Avot’s mistakes no more than it hides their heroic resistance to sin, and we are meant to learn from both.

Last week, we focused on Yosef. Our analysis actually extended significantly beyond Parashat VaYeshev and into Parashat Mikketz, this week’s parasha, as we traced Yosef’s replacement of Paro as leader of Egypt and Yosef’s personal reformation as a leader and religious-moral figure, climaxing with his standing before Paro and giving Hashem all of the credit for his power to interpret dreams. This week we will take a close look at Yehuda’s development as a leader. We will look back at Parashat VaYeshev, where Yehuda first gets serious exposure, and continue into Mikketz, where he begins to take a leadership role within his family. Parashat VaYigash, next week’s parasha, presents the clash of these titans, where Yehuda confronts his disguised brother and Yosef, satisfied by his manipulation of his brothers, eventually reveals his identity to them.

1. What role does Yehuda play in the sale of Yosef? Rabbi Mayer (Sanhedrin 6b; the coincidence of our names is simply that) sharply criticizes Yehuda for suggesting to his brothers that they sell Yosef instead of leaving him in the pit. Take a careful look at the scene where Yehuda makes this suggestion, and think about whether he deserves this censure. Why or why not?

2. Suddenly, in the midst of the Yosef narrative — just after Yosef is sold — the Torah takes a break to talk about Yehuda, his friends, his marriages, his sons, their marriages, the story with Tamar, and so forth — leaving us hanging, waiting for news of Yosef’s adventures in Egypt. Why is this Yehuda vignette inserted so abruptly into the middle of the dramatic, suspenseful Yosef story?

3. This must be a familiar question by now, since we have asked it about so many other figures: What are Yehuda’s challenges? What lessons does he learn as he develops into a leader, and how does he learn them?

4. What does “Yehuda” mean?

5. How does Yehuda’s behavior in Parashat Mikketz compare with his previous behavior? What new roles does he now take on? What changes in his relationship with his father?

6. Yehuda and Re’uvein, Ya’akov’s eldest son, are leaders, clearly meant to be compared:

* Both become involved in sexual impropriety, as noted above.
* Both suggest alternate ideas when the other brothers suggest killing Yosef.
* Both attempt to take responsibility for Binyamin on his journey to Egypt.

But how are Yehuda and Re’uvein different? How is this reflected later in Ya’akov’s blessings to them at the end of his life (Chap. 49)?


We join the brothers at Dotan, a place somewhere in the general vicinity of the family home at Hevron. They are at Dotan pasturing their flocks; Yosef, dispatched by his father, approaches them to observe and report to his father. But he will not see his father for more than twenty years!


As Yosef approaches, the brothers hatch a scheme to do away with him. Someone (the Torah does not identify him) suggests killing him, but Re’uvein quickly intervenes and suggests that they throw him into a pit instead: why actively murder him when they can just leave him somewhere to die? The Torah tells us that Re’uvein actually plans to rescue Yosef from the pit and return him to his father, but as we know, he never has that opportunity. Still, we have learned something important about Re’uvein: he is a leader. He is not swept along with the crowd’s plan to kill Yosef. He feels responsible to make sure that the tense relationship between the brothers does not lead to murder. This fits with his status as the bekhor, the eldest.

Re’uvein also understands that openly challenging his brothers may not work, so he pretends to go along with their intent to murder Yosef as he deflects them from immediate murder. A smart leader knows that he cannot always lead by taking the high moral ground and insisting that the crowd follow him. You can’t turn back a lynching mob by preaching; a more subtle approach is necessary. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says, “Do not try to appease your friend while he is angry, or comfort him while the body [of a loved one] lies before him . . .” (4:18). There will be other opportunities to teach the brothers how better to handle their anger and jealousy — right now, Re’uvein must focus on the smartest way to save Yosef’s life.


Later on, down in Egypt, when the brothers are treated harshly by Yosef (whom they do not recognize), they conclude that they are being punished by Hashem for having ignored Yosef’s cries when he begged them for mercy. Re’uvein says to them at that point, “Did I not tell you, saying, ‘Do not sin with the boy!’ But you did not listen — and now his blood is being sought (by God)!” (42:22). Strangely, Re’uvein seems convinced that Yosef is dead (“his blood is being sought”). Why is he so sure? And why does he make it sound like the brothers did not heed his advice, when we know that he advised them not to actively kill Yosef, and instead to throw him in a pit — and that they seem to have listened to him at the time?

We need to look back at the events around the time of the sale of Yosef. Re’uvein suggests throwing Yosef in a pit (37:21-22), and the brothers listen to him. But then Yehuda suggests that they sell Yosef instead. The brothers agree, and Yosef is pulled out of the pit and sold to traders heading for Egypt. Suddenly, it seems, Re’uvein notices that Yosef is gone. He exclaims in surprise, “The boy is gone! What am I going to do?” (37:29-30). Hasn’t Re’uvein been paying attention? Doesn’t he know that Yosef has been pulled out of the pit by the brothers and sold?

It seems that Re’uvein had been absent when Yehuda suggested selling Yosef, and only returned after he had been sold. At that point, he returned to the pit to save Yosef, as he had planned, and discovered that Yosef was gone! He then returned to the brothers and exclaimed in surprise and dismay that Yosef was gone. He assumed that the brothers had changed their plan and had indeed murdered Yosef and then disposed of him. “What will I do?!” he demands of them mournfully.

Re’uvein, it seems, is never clued in to the fact that Yosef has been sold; later, when the brothers are manipulated by the Egyptian ruler and they conclude that Hashem is punishing them for mistreating Yosef, Re’uvein’s admonishment — “You did not listen [to my advice], and now his blood is being sought (by God)” — shows that he has never been told the truth! He believes Yosef has been murdered, that the brothers ultimately rejected his warning not to actively spill Yosef’s blood, and now “his blood is being sought.” But why do the brothers keep Re’uvein in the dark? Why don’t they tell him that Yosef was never killed, that they had pulled him from the pit and sold him to traders heading to Egypt?

Perhaps the brothers hide the truth from Re’uvein because when he returned to the pit and did not find Yosef, he came back to the brothers and expressed his horror about Yosef’s disappearance. In other words, he revealed to them that he had been planning all along to save Yosef; this is, of course, why he is so horrified by Yosef’s disappearance. The brothers realize that they cannot tell Re’uvein what really happened because he is not on their side — he will simply go and tell Ya’akov that Yosef is not dead so that efforts can be made to find Yosef and buy him out of slavery. The brothers can keep Re’uvein quiet only by letting him think that they changed their minds and decided to kill Yosef after all; he will not tell Ya’akov of the murder because doing so would not save Ya’akov any grief, and, if anything, would only add to it. So Re’uvein now rebukes the brothers for not listening to him and murdering Yosef despite his advice — “Did I not say to you, saying, ‘Do not sin with the boy!’ But you did not listen — and now his *blood* (=murder, which is what he believes occurred, since he and the other brothers still do not recognize Yosef) is being sought (by God)!”


The brothers follow Re’uvein’s advice and throw Yosef into a pit, then sit down to eat. They notice a caravan of merchants heading for Egypt, and this gives Yehuda an idea:

BERESHIT 37:26 —
Yehuda said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Let us go and sell him to the Yishma’elim, and let us not set our own hands upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh,” and his brothers listened.

Rabbi Mayer [Sanhedrin 6b] is sharply critical of Yehuda for making this suggestion and trying to profit from the sale of his own brother:

Rabbi Meir says: “[The word] ‘botze’a’ [‘profiteer’] is used with regard to Yehuda, as it says: ‘Yehuda said to his brothers, ‘What profit [betza] do we get from killing our brother?’ Anyone who blesses Yehuda annoys God, as it says, ‘Blessing a profiteer [botze’a] annoys God.'”

If we take a careful look at the Torah’s report of Yehuda’s words, it seems from the beginning of what he says that he does indeed want to sell Yosef in order to make money; merely killing Yosef would get rid of him, but selling him would also make them some cash! But as he continues, it seems clear that Yehuda feels that killing Yosef is *wrong* — he is “our brother, our flesh.” The reason he suggests selling Yosef is because this will accomplish the goal of getting rid of Yosef without necessitating actually killing him. His statement, “What do we gain . . .”, does not mean “What $money$ do we gain by killing him,” but instead means “Why actually kill him (by letting him starve or die of thirst or snakebite in the pit where we left him) — we need not murder our brother in order to get rid of him; we can sell him instead.” Yehuda is saving Yosef’s life!

Taken in this way, Yehuda’s action reminds us of Re’uvein’s — he is trying to save Yosef by deflecting the brothers from murder. Certainly, this is a praiseworthy accomplishment. But Re’uvein, the Torah tells us, does what he does in order to “return Yosef to his father”; Yehuda, on the other hand, seems to have no such intention, otherwise the Torah would say so, as it does with regard to Re’uvein. Re’uvein seems concerned with two issues:

1) Yosef’s safety/not committing murder.
2) His father’s reaction to Yosef’s death.

Yehuda seems concerned about only the first of these issues. He is not deterred by the thought of the pain he will cause his father by arranging Yosef’s disappearance (and claiming he is dead!). He is unwilling to murder, but quite willing to get rid of the “dreamer” by selling him into Egyptian oblivion. As the story develops, we will see that Yehuda eventually becomes deeply sensitive to Ya’akov’s feelings, willing to sacrifice tremendously in order to protect Ya’akov from further pain.


Seforno points out (38:1) that Yehuda is paid back in *spades* for suggesting that Yosef be sold instead of trying (like Re’uvein) to foil the other brothers’ plans and return Yosef to his father. Because he does not consider the effect on his father of the disappearance/”death” of Yosef, Ya’akov’s favorite son, two of his own sons — Er and Onan — die.

Of course, there are independent reasons for the deaths of Er and Onan, Yehuda’s sons: the Torah says that Er dies because he is “evil in the eyes of God,” while Onan, who marries Tamar, his brother’s widow, dies because he refuses to have children with Tamar (and instead “destroys his seed”), knowing that any children he might have with her would be considered (in some way) his brother’s children. As we have seen several times, whenever someone suffers a punishment, there should be a reason why that person himself deserves to be punished. And in this case, Er and Onan deserve punishment for their own misdeeds. But Yehuda, their father, also apparently deserves to suffer the death of his children for his insensitivity to Ya’akov’s pain in losing Yosef, his child. By the end of this story, however, we will see that this weakness becomes one of Yehuda’s greatest strengths.

[The other brothers, of course, may also suffer punishments for their roles in the sale, but we do not hear about them. The Torah focuses on filling in the sketches of the major figures, such as Yehuda, Yosef, and to a lesser extent, Re’uvein.]

After selling Yosef and dipping his royal cloak (see last week’s shiur) in blood, the brothers return to Ya’akov, who concludes that Yosef is dead and slips deep into mourning for his son.


The Torah then takes a sudden turn into the private life of Yehuda and spends a whole perek (chapter) in his world:

BERESHIT 38:1-2 —
It happened, at that time, that Yehuda went down from among his brothers and turned to an Adulamite man, whose name was Hira. Yehuda saw there the daughter of a Cana’ani [traveling merchant(?) — see mefarshim] whose name was Shu’a; he took her [married her] and came to her.

Bat Shu’a, as she is later called by the Torah, bears three sons to Yehuda: Er, Onan, and Shayla. Yehuda marries off his son Er to a woman named Tamar; when Er dies, Yehuda marries off Onan, his second son, to Tamar. When Onan dies as well, Yehuda balks at offering his last son to her, fearing that he too will die. Yehuda puts Tamar off by telling her to wait until Shayla grows up.

Tamar patiently waits as Shayla grows older, but when Yehuda still does not offer his son to her, she takes matters into her own hands. Dressing as a prostitute (in those days, prostitutes covered their faces — see mefarshim — so Yehuda does not recognize her as his daughter-in-law), she positions herself on a road she knows is in Yehuda’s path. Yehuda eventually arrives, thinks her a prostitute, arranges to leave collateral with her as guarantee for later payment, avails himself of her services, and goes on his way. Later, when he sends a friend to deliver payment, the “prostitute” is nowhere to be found. [I know some may find the term “prostitute” indelicate, but the words used by the Torah here are “zona” and “kedeisha,” translated by the Artscroll Stone Chumash (certainly a modest-minded translation) as “prostitute” and “harlot.”]

Three months later, Tamar’s pregnancy (the result of her rendezvous with Yehuda) becomes apparent. Yehuda is told of her pregnancy and condemns her to death for adultery (she is technically still “married” to Yehuda’s family as the widow of Er and Onan), but when she produces the collateral which is unmistakably his, he admits — publicly — that he is the father. Tamar is saved, but everyone finds out that Yehuda was intimate with her thinking she was a prostitute.

What is the lesson of this *very* strange story? Comparing it to a similar story involving a famous direct male-line descendant of Yehuda may illuminate the matter:


David, crowned by God, has a friend named Hiram, who is king of a neighboring kingdom (see Shmuel II:5:11 and Melakhim I:5:15); note that the name “Hiram” is curiously similar to the name of Yehuda’s friend, “Hira,” mentioned above.

One day, David sees a woman named “Bat Sheva” — a name curiously similar to “Bat Shu’a,” the name of Yehuda’s wife — and David desires her and takes her although she is married. David sends her husband Uria off to the front lines of battle to be killed. But then God sends Natan (the prophet) to David to rebuke him for what he has done. Natan traps David into condemning himself:

God sent Natan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a city, one rich and one poor. The rich one had a great number of sheep and cattle, but the poor one had nothing but one little lamb he had bought and kept alive. It grew up with him and his sons together, ate from his bread, drank from his cup, lay in his lap, and was like a daughter to him. A traveler came to [visit] the rich man; [the rich man] pitied his own sheep and cattle too much to make one of them [into a meal] for his visitor, so he took the lamb of the poor man and made it [into a meal] for his guest!”

David became furious at this [rich] man and said to Natan, “By the life of God, the man who did this deserves to die! He shall pay for the lamb four times over, for doing this thing and for not having mercy!”

Natan said to David, “YOU are the [rich] man! So says God, Lord of Yisrael: ‘I anointed you king over Yisrael and saved you from Sha’ul. I gave you the house of your master . . . . Why have you desecrated the word of God, doing evil in My eyes? You have stricken Uria the Hiti with a sword and taken his wife as your wife; you killed him with the sword of the children of Ammon . . . . You acted in secret, but I will [punish you] before all of Israel, before the sun!'”

David said, “I have sinned to God.”

Natan said to David, “God has forgiven you; you will not die. But . . . the son who is born [from your union with Bat Sheva] will die.”

OK. Let us now compare these stories:

1) Has a friend named “Hira.” 1) Has a friend named “Hiram.”
2) Marries “Bat Shu’a” 2) Marries a woman named
“Bat Sheva.”
3) Sexual “irregularity.” 3) Sexual “irregularity.”
4) Unknowingly condemns innocent 4) Unknowingly condemns self
to death, while he himself is to death.
truly responsible.
5) Commits secret unworthy act. 5) Commits secret unworthy act.
6) Admits publicly. 6) Admits publicly.
7) Sons die to punish faked 7) Son dies to punish slaughter
slaughter of favorite son. of poor man’s only lamb.

Of course, as mentioned, Yehuda is also David’s great grandfather!

[Many like to point out that Rav Shmuel b. Nahmeini — Shabbat 56a — ‘reinterprets’ David’s actions and claims that he did not actually sin in taking Bat Sheva and having Uria killed. But if you keep reading the Gemara there, Rav, the Amora, responds that R. Shmuel b. Nahmeini is saying this only because he himself is descended from David! Other views in Hazal go so far as to claim that David not only took a married woman, but that he raped her as well (Ketubot 9a). It is important to keep in mind that there are often multiple opinions on such matters within Hazal, and certainly among later commentators. We attempt in these shiurim to follow “peshat” as closely as possible, as discussed in this forum on several occasions.]


The central pattern repeated in the stories of both Yehuda and David HaMelekh is the “sting,” as it were. In the case of David, the “sting” strategy is clear: Natan is sent by God to arouse David’s fury at the “rich man.” When his anger is in full bloom, his outrage at the cruel, unfeeling “rich man” at its indignant apex, Natan’s mission is to utterly puncture David’s righteous anger by telling him that *he* is the “rich man”! This “sting,” which draws David in and then makes him the target of his own condemnation, is so psychologically devastating that David Ha-Melekh can respond with only two words: “Hatati LaShem” — “I have sinned to God.” He offers no arguments, excuses, explanations, mitigations — only a humble, simple admission of guilt before God. Would that we could admit mistakes with such pure contrition!

This admission of sin is the cornerstone of teshuva. This is clear not only from Natan’s reaction to David’s admission — that David has been forgiven and will not actually die — but also from the famous Rambam [Maimonides] in Hilkhot Teshuva [Laws of Repentance] (1:1), where the Rambam says that “when a person repents, he must admit the sin . . . admitting the sin is a positive obligation (mitzvat asei).” Many have pointed out that according to the Rambam’s formulation, the mitzvah appears to be the *viduy,* the *admission* of sin, not the repentance itself! Recognizing sin and articulating that recognition are not only halakhically necessary for teshuva, but can also be transforming, psychologically and religiously (but perhaps not if performed in robot-like, emotionless vocalization of the “Al het” prayer in the Yom Kippur tefilot or mindless chest-beating in the daily “Selakh lanu”).

Most people intuitively understand this halakha of viduy — just look at how hard it usually is for people to admit they have done something wrong. Once we can admit it (even privately), it’s “out there” psychologically, and repentance can move forward.

Yehuda, too, walks into a “sting.” After his intimacy with the unknown prostitute (really Tamar), he goes on his way. But when he tries to send payment to her for her service (and collect the important personal collateral he has left with her), she is nowhere to be found. About three months later, Tamar begins to show signs of pregnancy:

BERESHIT 38:24 —
It happened, after about three months, that it was told to Yehuda, saying, “Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has committed adultery, and is also pregnant from adultery!” Yehuda said, “Take her out and let her be burned [to death]!”

Why is Yehuda involved in passing judgment on Tamar? Most of us assume that Yehuda is consulted either because he is a judge or, as some mefarshim (commentators) explain, because the custom was that the husband of an unfaithful woman [in those times, a widow like Tamar was considered betrothed in potential to the remaining brothers of her deceased husband or to the other men of the family, including Yehuda himself] had the prerogative of deciding whether she should live or die.

But there is one other reason that Yehuda must be consulted: the implicit question the people are asking him when they tell him that Tamar is pregnant is, “Could it be that you are responsible for her pregnancy, and therefore she has not committed adultery and does not deserve to die?” Yehuda’s response — “Take her out and let her be burned!” — is a clear answer in the negative: “I am not responsible for her pregnancy.” Like David, he walks into the “sting” by condemning someone to death, where in truth he himself is responsible.

Before long, the condemned Tamar sends Yehuda the message that the owner of the collateral she holds is also the father of the fetus. Yehuda recognizes the collateral as his own belongings, and he must now “eat his words” — *he* is the guilty party, not Tamar, whom he had just condemned to death. Like David, his words are few, but in them he recognizes that Tamar is innocent of adultery and that she acted justifiably in response to his cruel refusal to marry her to his son.

Implicit also is the admission that he thought she was a prostitute when he was intimate with her, surely a great embarrassment to him. We can only imagine the depth of Yehuda’s mortification when he sees the collateral — his own signet ring, his staff, and his “petil” [whatever that is, which is not clear] — and realizes that he must either remain silent and watch the innocent Tamar die, or admit to the entire community what he has done. He could remain silent — perhaps many people would — but instead he endures the shame of retracting the confident, terse verdict, “Take her out and let her be burned,” and announces that she is right and he is wrong.


Yehuda’s power of teshuva, his strength of admitting his mistakes, is actually hinted by his name. Back in Parashat VaYetze, Yehuda’s mother, Le’ah, names him “Yehuda” as an expression of thanks to God: the “yud” and “heh” [“yah”] stand for God, and the “heh,” “vav,” and “dalet” [“hod”] — mean “glory” or “thanks/praise”; putting the two together [“yah” + “hod” = “Yehuda”] yields “Glory to God!” or “Thanks to God!”

But “hod” also means “to admit.” The word “hoda’a,” for example, means both “thanks/praise” and “admission.” The word “viduy,” the process of admitting sin, comes from the same root, as does the word “Toda,” meaning “Thanks!” The reason “hod” includes both glorifying/thanking and admitting is because, in a way, thanking is also admitting that someone has done something for us and that we are beholden (or, vice versa, because admitting something gives glory to the recipient of the admission). This is what we mean in Shemoneh Esrei when we say the berakha of “Modim,” which also comes from the same root as “Yehuda,” “hod,” and “viduy.” Yehuda, then, means both “Thanks to God” and also “The one who admits [wrongdoing] before God.”

This power of Yehuda’s, the strength to admit he has done wrong, is later recognized by Ya’akov in his blessing to Yehuda among the blessings he gives to all of his sons in Parashat VaYehi:

BERESHIT 49:8-9 —
“Yehuda, your brothers shall defer to you/praise you [“yodukha”]; your hand is on the scruff of your enemy’s neck, and your father’s sons shall bow to you. A young lion is Yehuda; from tearing [“teref”], my son, you arose . . . .”

“Yodukha” — “admit [to] you” — means that the other brothers will admit that he is their leader, and, as Ya’akov goes on to explain, that they will bow to him. Because Yehuda has the power to recognize the truth of his own misdeed and admit it — even when the truth is deeply embarrassing or uncomfortable — his brothers will recognize his leadership and “admit” that he is their leader (see Rashbam and Radak, 49:9).

Ya’akov’s blessing also hints one other thing: Ya’akov is recognizing that although Yehuda was involved in “teref,” “tearing [prey],” he has “arisen” from that event. Remember that when Ya’akov is tricked into believing that Yosef has been killed by a wild animal, he cries out, “tarof taraf Yosef” — “Yosef has been torn apart!”, using the same word — “teref” — as he later uses in this berakha. Yehuda was deeply involved in that “teref” — the plan to sell Yosef was his — but Ya’akov’s blessing at the end of Sefer Bereshit recognizes that Yehuda “arose” after that event. In other words, the “teref” was a low point in Yehuda’s career, but he “arose” from that low point to become the leader of all of the brothers.

Now, we move to Parashat Mikketz to see how Yehuda “arose” from the “teref” to assume leadership of the family.


As the seven years of plenty come to an end and the seven years of famine begin, Egypt and all of its neighbors begin to starve. Yosef responds by opening Egypt’s storehouses and selling food to the people, but the neighboring countries, not blessed with a “Yosef” and his divinely inspired prescience, can only turn to Egypt for relief. Included among the seekers of sustenance is Ya’akov’s family. All of the brothers go down to Egypt for food except Binyamin, who is kept home by his father. Ya’akov fears that if he lets Binyamin go, he may never see him again (like Yosef).

When the brothers arrive in Egypt and appear before Yosef, he immediately recognizes them and accuses them of spying (recall that his spying on them was one of the reasons the brothers hated Yosef!). Yosef demands that they prove their story is true by bringing their younger brother down to Egypt. When the brothers return to Ya’akov and tell him the story, he refuses to permit Binyamin to go to Egypt, for fear that he will be somehow harmed, as Yosef was.

Re’uvein attempts to change Ya’akov’s mind by guaranteeing Binyamin’s safety:

BERESHIT 42:37 —
Re’uvein said to his father, saying, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him [Binyamin] back to you! Give him into my hands, and I will return him to you.”

Ya’akov does not accept this offer, and refuses to allow Binyamin to leave. Why?

Some mefarshim (Rashi, Radak, etc.) cite Hazal’s explanation: Hazal refer to Re’uvein as a “bekhor shoteh,” a “foolish firstborn.” Ya’akov does not actually respond to Re’uvein’s guarantee, but Hazal say that he is thinking, “You fool! Are your sons not also my GRANDSONS? Your loss would also be my loss!” But the Ramban offers another explanation: Ya’akov does not *trust* Re’uvein because 1) he does not have the respect of the other brothers, as Yehuda does, and 2) Re’uvein has already shown disloyalty to his father by sleeping with Bilha, his father’s wife.

We can add that Ya’akov does not trust Re’uvein’s guarantee because the guarantee itself shows that his judgment is seriously flawed: how can he guarantee the safety of one person by threatening the safety of two others!? In addition, the extreme consequences Re’uvein agrees to suffer for failing his mission are tremendously overblown — the death of his two sons! He offers this guarantee to convince Ya’akov how serious he is, but he only succeeds in convincing Ya’akov that he is either unstable or untrustworthy.

Time passes and the family begins to run out of food. Ya’akov commands his sons to return to Egypt for food, but Yehuda patiently responds that they can return to Egypt only with Binyamin. Of course, Ya’akov has not forgotten that this was the condition that the Egyptian ruler had set for their return. But in his great reluctance to send Binyamin with them, he hides for a moment from reality. He knows his sons will remind him of the necessity of taking Binyamin with them, but for Ya’akov, life has become a nightmare, and for a moment, he tries to ignore one particularly unpleasant aspect of it. Ya’akov may also hope to provoke one of his sons to offer a guarantee of safe passage for Binyamin which he can trust more than the guarantee offered by Re’uvein. In this, he succeeds.

Yehuda is the one who reminds Ya’akov of reality, patiently repeating what he knows his father knows: that they must take Binyamin. Ya’akov protests further, and eventually, Yehuda offers Ya’akov a guarantee:

“I will take responsibility for him — seek him from my hands. If I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, I will have sinned to you for all time.”

Yehuda offers no fireworks: no “kill my sons” or “cut out my tongue” or anything like that. He simply and reasonably promises to take care of Binyamin: he provides consequences which sound unpleasant enough that Ya’akov believes that Yehuda will make great efforts to avoid failure, but not so unpleasant (“kill my sons”) that Ya’akov will either think he is not serious or that his judgment is impaired and that he is incapable of the mission he undertakes.


Yehuda now begins to take over the role of leadership from his father. He shows leadership in bringing his father back to reality and in taking responsibility for Binyamin. But on a deeper level, he also shows deep concern for Ya’akov’s paternal fears and feelings. Instead of guaranteeing Binyamin’s safety by putting himself at risk (“I will have sinned to you for all time”), he could easily have said harshly, “Look, we will all die unless you agree to let Binyamin go with us! Don’t you realize that we are all now in danger of dying of hunger? How can you talk about what *might* happen to one of your sons when it is clear that unless you let him go with us, *all* of us will die!” Instead, Yehuda puts himself at risk and offers a guarantee — all in order to ease his father’s fears. In next week’s parasha, we see that when Yosef insists on imprisoning Binyamin, Yehuda is willing to go to prison for as long as necessary in order to deliver on this commitment — in order to protect his father from the pain of having Binyamin disappear.

This is not the same Yehuda as the one who suggested selling Yosef to the passing caravan! This is the Yehuda who has “arisen” from the “teref” of Yosef!

Another famous Rambam (based on Yoma 86b):

“What is COMPLETE TESHUVA? When another opportunity comes to do the same sin, and he is capable of doing it, and he does not do it, because he has repented — not because of fear or weakness.”

In a sense, Yehuda’s acquisition of deep sensitivity to Ya’akov’s feelings is a process in which he *becomes* Ya’akov himself. Long ago (in Parashat VaYeitzei), Ya’akov took his family and flocks and ran away from Lavan without telling him. Lavan pursued him, and, when he caught up with Ya’akov, accused him of stealing his gods. Ya’akov allowed Lavan to search his belongings, and when Lavan found nothing, Ya’akov became furious:

BERESHIT 31:38-39 —
“It is now twenty years that I have been with you — your sheep and goats never lost their young [“shikeilu”], and your rams I did not consume. I never brought to you a “tereifa” [torn-up animal] — I blamed myself for it, and you sought it from my hands, whether stolen from me during day or night.”

Let us focus on three elements of Ya’akov’s testimony to his great self-sacrifice and honesty as Lavan’s shepherd:

1) The lack of “shikul” — “shikul” means, literally, that a parent suffers the death of one of its children. Ya’akov is claiming that none of the sheep ever had its lamb die under his care (except, as he goes on to say, animals attacked by predators (“tereifa”).

2) He never brought a “tereifa” to Lavan, the owner — he absorbed the cost himself.

3) “Anokhi ahatena” — “I would blame myself for it”, i.e., I considered the loss to be my responsibility, and “mi-yadi tevakshena” — “you would seek [payment] from my hands.”

A careful look at the Ya’akov of VaYeshev and Mikketz shows that he seems to suffer exactly the things from which he protected Lavan and his flocks:

1) “Tereifa” is indeed brought to him — “Tarof taraf Yosef!”, he concludes in horror when shown Yosef’s bloody cloak.

2) He is “shakul” — when the brothers return from Egypt after their first trip, and Shimon is not with them because Yosef is holding him hostage, Ya’akov complains, “Oti shikaltem!” — “You have made me ‘shakul,’ you have made me a parent who has lost his children” — “Yosef einenu, ve-Shimon einenu, ve-et Binyamin tikahu . . . .” — “Yosef is gone, and Shimon is gone, and [now] you will take Binyamin as well . . . .”

But then Yehuda steps in, and by reversing these two tragedies, he rises to greatness and emulates Ya’akov, who so carefully avoided causing “teref” and “shikul” so long ago:

1) In his berakha to Yehuda at the end of Sefer Bereishit, Ya’akov himself acknowledges that Yehuda has arisen from the “teref” — like Ya’akov himself, Yehuda takes responsibility for his brother (and his father’s feelings) the second time around; he now upholds “tereifa lo heiveiti eilekha” — like Ya’akov, he no longer brings “tereifa” home to show the master. He promises to return Binyamin home safely.

2) Yehuda prevents the “shikul” that Ya’akov fears (the death or disappearance of Binyamin) by guaranteeing Binyamin’s safety and offering to be imprisoned instead of Binyamin.

3) When he guarantees Binyamin’s safe return to Ya’akov, he uses almost the same words as Ya’akov did when describing how he took personal responsibility for Lavan’s sheep!

Yehuda: “Anokhi e’ervenu, mi-yadi te-vakshenu.”
Ya’akov: “Anokhi ahatena, mi-yadi te-vakshena.”

Additionally, Yehuda promises that if he fails in his mission to return Binyamin, “ve-hatati lekha kol ha-yamim,” paralleling Ya’akov’s “ahatena” — both accept blame for failure [“het”] as their personal responsibility.

Next week, as we discuss Yosef’s manipulation of the brothers, we will also look at Yehuda’s emotional speech to Yosef, which is what finally forces Yosef to reveal himself.

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat VaYeshev: Yosef

Parashat VaYeshev turns the focus of the Torah from Ya’akov and his development as a spiritual/moral leader to the character and development of Ya’akov’s successors, his sons. Having learned together through the parshiot from the beginning of the Torah until now, it should come as no surprise to us that — like Adam, Hava, Noah, Avraham, Sara, Yitzhak, Rivka, Ya’akov, Rahel, and Le’ah — Ya’akov’s sons, while gifted and blessed, are not perfect. This faces us with the question we have dealt with in previous weeks with regard to some of the great figures above: why are these individuals chosen to found the nation with a special relationship with Hashem? The Torah clearly records their sins and exposes their flaws. What makes them great?

One approach to this question is that taken by some midrashim (rabbinic commentary on the Torah) and medieval commentators: that the figures above, including the twelve sons of Ya’akov, are indeed perfect or close to perfection. This approach requires reinterpretation of the many incidents the Torah reports which appear to show that these figures sinned or were flawed in important ways.

We have been taking a different approach, one which accepts a more literal meaning of the events in the Torah. In answering questions which arise, we look to the text of the Torah itself for answers. This means that we must accept that our founders were far from perfect, but, more importantly, it leaves us with the hard work of understanding what makes them great and what lessons we can learn from them.

Beginning in VaYeshev, the Torah focuses especially on the development of Yosef and Yehuda, and, to a lesser degree, Re’uvein. As we learn through VaYeshev, MiKetz, and VaYigash, our job is to follow these figures through their challenges and triumphs.

1. Yosef and Yehuda: What are their challenges? What do they learn, and how do they learn it? What makes them great?

2. Re’uvein: what kind of leader is he? Clearly, something seems amiss, but what is it?

3. In terms of leadership, what is the relationship between Yosef, Yehuda, and Re’uvein?

4. What is Ya’akov’s role in all this, and how does his position in the family change over time?


Last week we completed a chapter in Ya’akov’s life: his development from “Ya’akov” to “Yisrael,” from subtlety, deception, and avoidance of challenges to straightforwardness, strict honesty, and courage. With this week’s parasha, the Ya’akov-Eisav rivalry is history and the focus moves to Ya’akov’s sons.


By now, we have noticed the recurring theme that the family dynamics of the households of our Avot are somewhat less than perfect: Avraham is beset by the conflict between himself and his nephew, Lot, and suffers through the strife between his wives, Sara and Hagar; Yitzhak and Rivka participate in the competition and conflict between their sons; Ya’akov is the nexus of the competition between his wives for affection and fertility.

The mythical Jewish family is middle or upper-middle class, with a mom and dad, about three kids, no serious internal conflict, no underachievers. Today, the media devote lots of print and airtime to showing us that there are Jewish families of all kinds, some with one parent, some with four parents, some with no kids, some far below or high above middle class, some torn by strife and conflict, some burdened with ‘underachievers.’ I suppose this is a revelation to those who believe in this “mythical Jewish family,” but it strikes me that this “mythical family” certainly did not grow out of Sefer Bereshit, where we find multiple female parents in one family, midlife deaths of wives and mothers, a persistent pattern of childlessness, siblings murdering one another or trying to, children and spouses being thrown out of houses, siblings who sell each other into slavery, strife between parents… never a dull moment. The Torah recognizes the reality of family life and does not hide the uncomfortable truth or try to project an unachievable model for us to follow. May all of our families be happy and healthy… but our often less-than-perfect reality is affirmed by the family snapshots we see in the Torah’s album.

We now turn to look at Ya’akov’s children, his relationship with them, their relationships with each other, and their development.


We begin with Yosef. Yosef has so many things going for him!

1) He is his father’s favorite.

2) His mother is Ya’akov’s favored wife.

3) He is physically quite attractive.

4) He is a leader of rare capability.

5) He is a brilliant interpreter of dreams.

Of course, Yosef also faces many challenges:

1) He is his father’s favorite — which makes his brothers hate him.

2) His mother is Ya’akov’s favored wife — but she dies while he is still young.

3) He is physically very attractive — but this contributes to his self-absorption (see Rashi) and helps land him in jail later on.

4) He is a leader of rare capability — but this makes him a threat to some of the other brothers, who are hoping to one day lead the family. It also gives him authority over the others, which makes him unpopular.

5) He is a brilliant interpreter of dreams — but his own dreams of leadership fuel his brothers’ hatred and jealousy.

No characteristic is simply a strength or a weakness. Each can play either role, depending on how we handle it. At this point in his life, Yosef is full of potential, but his youthful lack of wisdom turns some of his assets against him.


How is it that Yosef’s brothers arrive at an emotional state where they are ready to murder or sell him? The Torah describes the development of the relationship:

BERESHIT 37:2-4 —
These are the offspring of Ya’akov: Yosef, seventeen years old, shepherded the sheep with his brothers and was the supervisor of the sons of Bilha and Zilpa, his father’s wives. Yosef brought evil reports of them to their father. Yisrael loved Yosef better than all of his other sons, because he was the son of his old age, and he made him a striped cloak. His brothers saw that his father loved him better than all of his brothers, and they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.

Who fires the first shot in this battle? Who first sets in motion the process which ends in Yosef’s sale? Suprisingly, the answer is Ya’akov, Yosef’s own father.

Yosef is his father’s favorite because he is a “ben zekunim” — “the son of his old age.” But how much age difference is there between Yosef and his brothers? Several mefarshim (commentators) point out that Yosef is in fact the same age as several of his brothers! He is the same age, for example, as Yissakhar and Zevulun. And his own brother, Binyamin, is even younger than he is — even more of a “ben zekunim” than Yosef is. So what does “ben zekunim” mean, since it can’t mean simply a son born in the father’s old age?

Mefarshim disagree on the exact definition, but the Ramban’s approach is perhaps the closest to “peshat” because it answers our question and also translates “ben zekunim” fairly literally. The Ramban says “ben zekunim” means that Yosef was chosen by his father to *serve* him in his old age. According to the Ramban, it was common practice for elderly people to choose one child to serve them, help them perform needed tasks, get from place to place, etc. This child would remain with the parent while the other children went about their business. “Ben zekunim,” then, does not mean “a son born in his father’s old age,” it means “a son who was chosen for his father in his old age.”

Ya’akov has chosen Yosef as his “ben zekunim,” the son who keeps him company, runs his errands, and helps him perform tasks. This includes a crucial function which Ya’akov passes to Yosef: the task of keeping an eye on his sons (Seforno 37:4 asserts that Ya’akov appoints Yosef to take charge of his brothers in managing the flocks). Yosef, as his father’s representative, performs this task by reporting to his father what his brothers are up to, which, as we hear, is not always good. And as we know, the brothers’ opportunity to kill or sell Yosef is provided by Ya’akov himself, who sends Yosef off to observe the brothers and return with a report.


While we’re on the topic of Yosef’s leadership qualities, what evidence is there that Yosef is a talented leader? There is a pattern in Yosef’s life which we see repeated several times with regard to leadership: people tend to give Yosef so much responsibility, such a degree of carte blanche to supervise things as he sees fit, that they all but abdicate their own role as leaders. There are four examples of this pattern:

1) Ya’akov:

Ya’akov gives up the role of supervising his sons and appoints Yosef as his field representative. Yosef is in charge not only of the operation of the family business, but also of the flow of information. His father depends on him not just for leadership, but also for reports about what is happening.

2) Potifar:

BERESHIT 39:2-6 —
God was with Yosef, and he was a man of success; he remained in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that God was with him, and that everything he did, God made successful. Yosef found favor in his eyes and served him; he appointed him over his house, and EVERYTHING HE OWNED, HE PLACED IN YOSEF’S HANDS. From the time he appointed him in his house over everything he owned, God blessed the house of the Egyptian because of Yosef, and God’s blessing was upon all he had, in the house and in the field. He left [“abandoned,” perhaps] all of his possessions in Yosef’s hands; HE DID NOT KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT HIS OWN POSSESSIONS, except the bread he ate . . . .

Not only is Yosef put in charge of everything, but Potifar basically abdicates as master of the house. Potifar actually has no idea what is going on in the house. He trusts Yosef so implicitly that he knows only that his meals arrive and that he eats them.

When the *mistress* of the house notices him and begins to make passes at him, we see even more powerfully the degree to which Yosef has become master of the house. She may be attracted to him not just because he is so handsome, but also because he has supplanted her husband as man of the house. She would never have laid eyes on a lowly slave, even a good-looking one, but this slave has become master of the house — almost husband-like. Because his status has risen, it now becomes possible for her to think of him as a sexual partner (or target).

3) Prison Warden:

BERESHIT 39:21-23 —
God was with Yosef and drew favor to him, putting his favor in the eyes of the warden of the prison. The prison warden put all of the prisoners in the prison into Yosef’s hands; anything that was done there — he did it. THE PRISON WARDEN DID NOT SEE ANYTHING UNDER HIS CARE, since God was with him, and whatever he did, God made successful.

Again, we note the pattern above: not only does his superior give him responsibility, he basically gives up his job and lets Yosef do it. Yosef has functionally replaced the warden. Again, a person in authority trusts Yosef so implicitly that he lets Yosef do whatever he wants. The warden himself has no idea what goes on from day to day in the prison. Yosef is such a capable leader, such a natural authority-wielder, that when he arrives, whoever is in charge is so overawed by his capabilities (and so delighted to be free to watch television) that Yosef seems to inevitably replace that leader.

4. Paro himself:

BERESHIT 41:38-43 —
Paro said to his servants, “Is there anyone like this man, in whom is the spirit of God?” Paro said to Yosef, “Since God has told all this to you, no one can be as wise and understanding as you. You shall be OVER MY HOUSE; by your word shall my people be sustained, and I SHALL REMAIN GREATER THAN YOU ONLY IN THE THRONE.” Paro said to Yosef, “See: I have placed you over all of Egypt.” Paro removed his ring from his hand and put it on Yosef’s hand, dressed him in linen clothing, and put a gold cape on his neck . . . .

Once again, Yosef demonstrates brilliant leadership, and the authority figure in this scenario — Paro — concludes that Hashem is with him. Paro appoints him as his second-in-command and relinquishes control of the single most important activity of his country for the next fourteen years: storing and distributing grain. Yosef **becomes** Paro, in effect. This self-replacement is confirmed by Paro’s transfer of the signet ring to Yosef: whatever Yosef decrees *becomes* the will of Paro. Later, when the famine begins and the people begin to starve, they come to Paro — who tells them to go to Yosef and to do whatever he tells them. Yosef has completely taken over, just as in the previous examples. (The words “over my house” clearly echo Potifar’s words in appointing Yosef over his own household.)


In summary of what we’ve said so far about Yosef and his brothers, the brothers hate him because:

1) He reports on them to their father (this may explain why Yosef, unrecognized by his brothers when they come to Egypt for food, accuses them of being spies — because one of the reasons they hated him long ago was for his spying on them and reporting back to his father!)

2) He is the best loved of them all because he does so much for Ya’akov and spends so much time with him.

Clearly, Ya’akov is responsible for putting Yosef in this tricky position. And as we are about to see, there is more to Ya’akov’s role.


The next thing the Torah says makes the brothers angry is that Ya’akov makes for Yosef a “ketonet pasim,” a cloak with stripes — perhaps colored stripes. But we are not talking about children here. Why does this cloak bother the brothers so much? Certainly, it is understandable that Ya’akov’s preference for Yosef angers them. But why does the cloak make things worse? It seems so trivial!

The Ramban (Shemot 28:2) and the Seforno (Bereshit 37:3) suggest that the “ketonet pasim” represents leadership — kingship. This cloak is not just the ancient Near Eastern version of a nice sweater, it is *ROYAL* garb, the cloak of a king (examples from Tanakh: Shmuel II 13:18, Yeshayahu 21:22). This is what it represents to the brothers; this is why it bothers them so much: Not only is Yosef the favorite son in terms of Ya’akov’s affections, but he appears to have been selected by Ya’akov to be the family’s next leader!

Ya’akov’s selection of Yosef particularly challenges Re’uvein, the biological first-born and natural choice to lead the family, and Yehuda, who begins to takes a prominent leadership role in the family, clashing with Yosef more than once.

All of this is quite a lot of ‘baggage’ for Yosef to carry around, and none of it seems to be his fault. Yosef’s predicament appears to be created by Ya’akov, as the Torah explicitly tells us that the brothers hate him for his cloak and for reporting on them.


But then the Torah reports that Yosef reports his dreams to his brothers. Usually, when we look at this story, even if Yosef’s behavior (trumpeting to his brothers his dreams of ruling over them, 37:5-8) seems inappropriate to us, we assume he is just naive, an immature but talented 17-year-old who assumes his brothers will share his excitement about his bright future.

This is certainly one way to read the story. But there is another possibility, one which makes more sense in the context of the tense and hate-filled relationship the Torah says already exists. It is difficult indeed to believe that Yosef is unaware of the hatred already generated by his father’s favoritism toward him (37:3). Ya’akov’s preference is no secret — Yosef actually walks around wearing the sign of that preference — and Yosef must notice that his brothers seem unable to speak to him without almost spitting at him, as the Torah reports. In this context, how can he not realize that telling his brothers about his dreams of ruling over them will aggravate the situation?

Some suggest (see Hizkuni) that Yosef is attempting to convince his brothers that they should not hate him. He is hinting that his future as a leader is not something his father is giving to him; in truth, Hashem Himself is behind his rise to power. But if so, once he has tried to convince them of this by telling them the first dream, and he sees that their hatred has only grown, why does he report to them another dream which shows them bowing to him again? Isn’t it clear to him that this strategy has totally backfired?

The Radak (37:5-7; see also Seforno 37:19) provides an entirely different approach to Yosef’s role in this story. He suggests that in the already tense and hate-filled context, Yosef’s sharing his dreams of dominating the family is not a naive mistake, but a very purposeful and *aggressive* move! Yosef *knows* his brothers hate him — and he wants them to know that one day they will all bow to him! He tells them his dreams not because he is foolish enough to imagine that they will be happy for him, but in order to taunt them!

This view is supported by the fact that Yosef takes more than one opportunity to share these dreams with his brothers. Even if he somehow manages to convince himself the first time around that his brothers might be happy for him, he cannot be foolish enough to expect the same positive reaction the second time.

Yosef, it seems, is not the happy-go-lucky young man we might have imagined, with stars in his eyes and a jumbo helping of naivete. He is quite aware of his brothers’ feelings about him, and he responds to their palpable hatred by taunting them with visions of their subservience to him. What we are beginning to see is that the situation is not quite as simple as it might have seemed, and that everyone involved — Ya’akov, the brothers, and Yosef, all contribute a drop of poison to the relationship between the brothers and Yosef.

All of the elements of the approach we have been developing here answer another question: everyone understands that later on, the brothers deserve (to some degree) the manipulation Yosef perpetrates on them by pretending not to know them and accusing them of espionage. After all, they sold him! Yosef needs to see if they have learned anything since then. But why does Yosef himself deserve to be sold as a slave? And why does Ya’akov deserve to be deprived of his favorite son for 22 years? Are we to say that the whole story is just an accident, just the result of the evil in which the brothers decide to engage? According to our approach, Yosef and Ya’akov have both made great mistakes; both need to learn something important.


Yosef responds to the animosity of his brothers by putting his future leadership “in their faces”: he announces to them that he has dreamed that he will rule over them. And then, for good measure, he does it again. What better learning process for Yosef than to be sold as a slave, the diametrical opposite of a king? This is not to say that Yosef’s dreams are only expressions of his arrogant ambitions — they are not his inventions, they are prophetic. But it was his choice to broadcast them to his brothers, his decision to respond to their hatred with high-handedness. Yosef will learn humility as a slave and prisoner. And then he can rise to responsible leadership.

It is also clear that this is not a lesson that his brothers consciously mean for Yosef to learn: they certainly do not sell him into slavery in order to rehabilitate him. They, of course, are ready to kill him, and only reconsider on second thought and decide to sell him. Their decision seems motivated by squeamishness about murder and perhaps also some greed, but no desire to aid Yosef in his personal development.

Later events show that Yosef has learned this lesson of humility:

1) When he offers to interpret the dreams of Paro’s wine steward and baker, he emphasizes that the interpretations come from Hashem and are not expressions of his own wisdom. He gives Hashem all the credit, making himself peripheral, only a vehicle to deliver the interpretation from Hashem. On the other hand, he has not yet totally internalized that his interpretive powers are Hashem’s, so he asks the wine-steward to remember him when the steward is released from jail and to try to have him set free. In other words, he still ascribes some credit for his talent to himself, and therefore thinks of his interpreting the steward’s dream as a favor *he* did for the steward, not as a situation in which he is nothing but the vehicle for the Divine.

2) Yosef’s true rehabilitation becomes apparent when he interprets Paro’s dream. When Paro gives him the perfect opportunity to take all the credit himself, he gives all the credit to Hashem: “It is not me! Hashem shall respond to Paro’s satisfaction” (41:16).

Yosef displays not only humility, ascribing his power to Hashem, but also shows that he now understands leadership on a much more profound level than before. Previously, he had used his prophetic dreams of leadership as a weapon against his brothers. Arrogantly, he had waved in their faces that they would one day bow to him. Of course, this very act showed that he was totally unfit to lead at that point — part of leadership is being accepted by the group one is leading.

But by now, Yosef has matured; he not only interprets Paro’s dream, but even successfully proposes the centerpiece of Egyptian economic-agricultural policy for the next fourteen years (7 of plenty and 7 of famine)! Fresh from jail, a slave shapes the future of the entire region and earns himself the power of second-to-the-king, largely because he couches his policy suggestion as something Hashem has told him. If he had phrased his suggestion as something he had thought of, Paro would either have thrown him out, executed him for chutzpah, or at least rejected his plan, for no king would accept a plan that is not only not his own plan, but which comes from a foreigner-slave-prisoner! As Hashem’s plan, however, Paro can and does accept it.

The same Yosef who years before lorded his future supremacy over his brothers now behaves as if he is only a pipeline for Hashem. In order to learn these lessons about humility and leadership, Yosef had to be reoriented. He needed to be sold as a slave in order to see that his destiny was totally in Hashem’s hands, that he would be a leader only if Hashem decided he would be, and that if Hashem preferred, he would be slave to an Egyptian minister or rot in an Egyptian jail forever.


Ya’akov has made mistakes as well, and the loss of Yosef is designed to punish him:

1) Singling out one of his sons was bound to end in disaster, but he ignores this danger. In response, Hashem takes from him what is most precious, but which is also the focus of his error: his son Yosef. With Yosef gone, perhaps Ya’akov will approach the remaining sons more fairly.

2) One other sin also catches up with Ya’akov at this point: the sin of dishonestly running away from Lavan’s house after twenty years there, sneaking away without taking leave properly:

A) BERESHIT 31:20 —
Ya’akov STOLE [va-yignov] the heart of Lavan the Aramean by not telling him that he was running away.

When Lavan catches up with Ya’akov several days later, he demands an explanation:

BERESHIT 31:26-27 —
Lavan said to Ya’akov, “What have you done, STEALING [va-tignov] my heart, treating my daughters like captives of war? Why did you sneak and run away, STEALING [va-tignov] me and not telling me . . . .”

Ya’akov responds, explaining why he ran away:

BERESHIT 31:31 —
Ya’akov answered and said, “Because I was afraid you would STEAL [ti-gnov] your daughters from me.”

Now we look at the way Yosef characterizes his kidnapping and sale:

BERESHIT 40:14-15 —
“For I have been STOLEN away [ganov gunavti] from the land of the Ivrim . . . .”

The Torah gives tremendous prominence to the word “ganav” in the story about Ya’akov’s flight from Lavan’s house — and the same word is used here by Yosef in a double formation (“ganov gunavti”).

B) Just as Ya’akov’s “theft” was a theft from one country to another — running away from Aram to Cana’an — this “theft” is also from one country to another, as Yosef emphasizes: “I have been stolen FROM THE LAND OF THE IVRIM.”

3) Most convincing of all is the exact parallel: Ya’akov explains to Lavan that he “stole away” because he was afraid that Lavan would “steal” his daughters (Ya’akov’s wives) away. In return, Yosef, Ya’akov’s son, is “stolen” from him.

Next week, we will deal with Yehuda, who deserves a spotlight of his own.

Shabbat shalom

Parshat VaYishlach: How We Struggle



1. Parashat VaYishlah is where Ya’akov rises from “Ya’akov” to “Yisrael.” What events of this week’s parasha show Ya’akov’s transformation? Considering the personal challenges Ya’akov has faced (or failed to face) so far, how does he overcome those challenges in this parasha?

2. In what ways does Hashem facilitate, encourage, and confirm this transformation?

3. As this week’s parasha comes to a close, so does a major chapter in Ya’akov’s life. This makes it a good time for a retrospective. What lessons have we learned from Ya’akov’s life?

Last week, we left Ya’akov at Gil’ad, the place where Lavan confronts Ya’akov and searches his belongings to find his stolen “terafim” (idols or oracles). After Lavan departs, Ya’akov sees a vision of angels and realizes that the place he has come to is a “camp of Hashem.”

This should remind us of something.

In the *beginning* of last week’s parasha, Ya’akov leaves home (Be’er Sheva) fleeing Eisav, arrives at a place somewhere along the road to Haran, and goes to sleep. His dream shows him a vision of a ladder with the angels ascending and descending, with Hashem at the top. When he awakens, he realizes that the place he has been sleeping is “Beit Elokim,” the house of Hashem, and “sha’ar ha-shamayim,” the gate of heaven.

By the time we arrive at this week’s parasha, we have come to the end of Ya’akov’s sojourn in Haran with Lavan, as he returns home to Cana’an. Ya’akov has come full circle, and the vision of angels he sees at the end of VaYeitzei symbolizes the completion of an important stage of his life and the beginning of the next stage. The stage of his life just completed was examined last week. What we are looking at now is the new stage. In that context, this vision of angels provokes certain questions:

* What is the significance of the new vision?
* Why have the angels appeared to him now? Since the angels don’t say anything, what is their message?
* What does it mean that this place is a “camp of Hashem”?
* What is the difference between a “camp of Hashem” and a “house of Hashem / gate of heaven”?

There are many explanations of this vision, but perhaps the one that fits best into context is that the angels appear specifically as a camp (as opposed to a fixed structure like a “house of Hashem” or “gate of heaven”) to signal that the angels are *traveling.* Unlike the vision at the beginning of VaYeitzei, with its “house of Hashem” and “gate of heaven,” structures which don’t move from place to place, these angels may be here to reassure Ya’akov that they will be traveling with him; their camp will be traveling with his camp to protect him. The angels appear now, assuring him of protection, in order to encourage him to do what he does next — sending messengers to his brother Eisav.

Our parasha opens with Ya’akov’s sending messengers toward Eisav. Many of us reading the parasha assume that Ya’akov sends messengers to Eisav only as a defensive measure: he believes Eisav is still eager to kill him for stealing his berakha, so he sends scouts ahead to check if Eisav has learned of his return to Cana’an.

But there is no evidence for this assumption. In fact, the simple reading of the text makes it sound like Ya’akov takes the *initiative* of sending messengers to Eisav! Eisav does not know that Ya’akov is on the way: Ya’akov has to send the messengers to “artza Se’ir, sedei Edom” — all the way to Eisav’s doorstep — because Eisav has no inkling of Ya’akov’s whereabouts and his impending arrival in Cana’an. Ya’akov takes this bold step because he wants to meet Eisav. He sends messengers to Eisav, he says, to “find favor in his eyes.”

Why? Wouldn’t it be safer to steer clear of Eisav forever? Why go looking for trouble?

Perhaps we will have answers as we move further. But one thing is clear already: this is not the same Ya’akov as before.

* The Ya’akov who now goes looking for Eisav is not the same Ya’akov who sneaked away from Lavan’s house eight days ago, seeking to avoid confrontation.
* He is also not the same Ya’akov who fled from Eisav twenty years ago, seeking to avoid a confrontation.
* He is also not the same Ya’akov who usurped Eisav’s blessing through deception.
* He is also not the same Ya’akov who took advantage of Eisav’s impulsiveness and lack of foresight by buying the birthright from him for a bowl of soup.
* And he is also not the same Ya’akov who tried to be first out of the womb by grabbing his brother Eisav’s heel, committing the symbolic act of underhanded competition which earned him the name “Ya’akov,” “he who grabs the heel.”

The messengers return to Ya’akov with bad news: they have arrived at Eisav’s court and given him Ya’akov’s message of greeting, but Eisav has apparently reacted badly. He, too, is eager to meet his long-lost brother, and he is bringing four hundred of his closest friends — his closest heavily armed friends — with him to the “reunion.” Ya’akov, of course, is terrified. Hazal note that he prepares for battle in three ways:

* Militarily: he splits his camp, hoping that if one camp is attacked, the other may escape.
* Religiously: he turns to Hashem and asks for His protection from Eisav.
* Psychologically: he sends a huge bribe to brother Eisav, hoping to gain his favor.

These three forms of preparation have stood as an example to centuries of Jewish communities facing impending violence: Jews have long utilized all three strategies at once. As we will see, Ya’akov’s preparations seem to pay off when Eisav eventually arrives and only tears flow, instead of blood. But we will also see that these strategies may not be exactly what they appear to be.

Let us take a look at one aspect of Ya’akov’s preparation for conflict: his tefila (prayer). Let us first deal with an internal contradiction: why does Ya’akov keep asking for Hashem’s protection and at the same time insist that he doesn’t deserve His kindness? Does it makes sense to ask for something and keep emphasizing that you really don’t deserve it?

The question itself is the answer: Ya’akov emphasizes that he deserves nothing, that all the kindness Hashem has already shown him is undeserved. In justifying his desperate request, he focuses completely on Hashem’s promises and on the relationship Hashem had established with Ya’akov’s father and grandfather. The humility of this prayer is obvious — “I do not deserve the kindness and support . . .”, but is implicit as well in the fact that Ya’akov places all of the stress of this tefila on the promises Hashem has made to him, and on the fact that his fathers have an established relationship with Hashem.

This pattern is reflected later in the Torah, when Bnei Yisrael are told by Moshe that Hashem favors them not because they are so wonderfully righteous, but because He loves them (a statement which requires explanation) and because of the promises He made to their forefathers. In similar fashion, Ya’akov adopts a posture of humility by spotlighting the promises made to him and the relationship Hashem established with his fathers.

Note also that this tefila is not Ya’akov’s first recorded tefila: that prayer took place at the beginning of VaYeitzei. Back then, during Ya’akov’s dream of the ladder ascending heavenward, Hashem promised him that he would produce a great nation, inherit the Land of Cana’an, be a source of blessing, and that Hashem would protect him while he was away from home (and return him safely home). When Ya’akov awoke in the morning, he realized that he had slept in a special place. He then made a promise to Hashem: if Hashem would keep His side of the deal — if He would come through on all of the promises He had made during the dream — then Ya’akov would do something for Hashem in return: he would make the spot in which he had slept into a “Beit Elokim,” and he would give to Hashem a tenth of anything he acquired (ma’aser).

By now, Ya’akov realizes that he cannot make deals with Hashem. There is no such thing as “holding up your end of the deal” with Hashem, because nothing you have to offer Him can ever equal what He gives to you; no matter what you offer, you will never deserve what He gives you. Ya’akov now recognizes the futility and inappropriateness of the deal he had made, and changes his tone entirely: now, he deserves nothing, has nothing to offer. He bases his claim solely on Hashem’s promises, the fact that Hashem was the God of his fathers — and the fact that he is terribly, terribly afraid.

Ya’akov’s next activity is to engage in that time-honored Jewish tradition, “Preparing The Bribe.” He instructs his servants to lead flocks of animals to Eisav and to offer them to him as gifts from Ya’akov. The Torah then summarizes Ya’akov’s thoughts as he instructs his servants:

BERESHIT 32:21-22 —
“You [the servants] should say, ‘Your servant, Ya’akov, is behind us,'” because he said [to himself], “I shall atone before him [akhapera panav] with the gift which precedes me [le-fanai], and then I will see his face [panav], so that perhaps he will forgive me [yisa panai].” The gifts passed before him [al panav] . . . .

A friend of mine, Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh, pointed out to me the startling repetition of the word “panim,” meaning “face,” in Ya’akov’s words. In different forms, “panim” appears five times in this brief space. Why so much emphasis on the face?

It is apparent that the Torah means to emphasize the confrontational nature of what Ya’akov is up to, the face-to-face nature of what he has initiated. The Torah means to highlight that Ya’akov is seeking a direct and open meeting. This, of course, stands in clear contrast with Ya’akov’s previous tendency to avoid challenges, employ deceit, and run away to avoid consequences. Now, breaking his pattern, he seeks Eisav out for a meeting “panim el panim,” face to face! That this is a reversal of Ya’akov’s old pattern is also hinted by Ya’akov’s name — literally, “heel” — the diametric opposite of “panim” — “face.” As we will see, this pattern of “panim” continues to play a central role. And, as we will see, “Ya’akov” is soon replaced by a name which describes his new strength.

As night falls, Ya’akov moves his wives and children across a river. Abravanel explains that he is splitting his camp by placing his family in one camp (the one across the river from Eisav) and leaving the servants in the forward camp. When Eisav shows up, the first camp he encounters will be that of the servants, and if he attacks it, the family camp will escape. This seems like classic Ya’akov behavior . . . facing a challenge by hoping to avoid it.

But this is not how the Torah seems to tell the story at all! It does indeed seem that Ya’akov splits the camps, but the split is not family/servants! The Torah says that after moving his family and possessions over the river, “Ya’akov remained alone.” What was he doing by himself?

Hazal suggest that Ya’akov went back over the river to get some small things he had left there from the previous trips. But the Torah itself says nothing about this at all. The simple reading of the Torah tells us that Ya’akov put his wives and children in one camp, and he himself “remained alone” — he HIMSELF was the other camp! Ya’akov puts himself in the forward camp, the one more exposed to Eisav’s approaching forces. And, as we all know, Ya’akov is indeed the first to clash with the forces of Eisav — but not his *physical* forces. Ya’akov is attacked by a mysterious “ish,” an unnamed “man,” who wrestles with him through the night. Again, we see Ya’akov, the “heel,” turning to “face” a challenge. He no longer squirms to avoid facing the consequences of his actions; instead, he courageously risks his own safety to protect his family, putting himself in the vanguard.

Ya’akov’s plan to split the camps pays off when an unnamed “man” attacks him as he awaits Eisav alone. Let us take a closer look at this wrestling match and at the very strange conversation which goes on during the match:

BERESHIT 32:26-30 —
He [the angel] saw that he could not best him [Ya’akov], so he touched the hollow of his thigh; the hollow of Ya’akov’s thigh become dislocated as they wrestled. He [the angel] said, “Let me go, for the dawn has risen!” He said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Ya’akov.” He said, “No longer ‘Ya’akov’ shall your name be called, but instead ‘Yisrael,’ for you have fought with Hashem and with men, and you have won.” Ya’akov asked and said, “Please tell me your name!” He said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And he blessed him there.

Clearly, we have a lot of explaining to do:

* Who is this angel-man?
* Why does he wrestle with Ya’akov? Why does he underhandedly injure Ya’akov?
* What sort of blessing is it to change someone’s name? Why not promise riches, or children, or land, or divine protection? And why does Ya’akov want a blessing anyway?
* What is the significance of the change from “Ya’akov” to “Yisrael”?
* The angel asks a good question — which we must answer — why does Ya’akov want to know the name of the angel?

What could possibly be the point of this wrestling match? Clearly, Hashem could have programmed the angel to simply overpower Ya’akov, so the match cannot be a test of Ya’akov’s physical strength. Instead, it is a test of his moral strength: *how* he will face the challenge, not whether he can oversome it. If he fights face to face, strength against strength, nothing “below the belt” — then he wins, because the angel-man has been programmed not to physically overpower Ya’akov, and must take his leave when daybreak arrives. But if Ya’akov, seeing that he cannot achieve a quick and easy victory, turns to deception and underhandedness as before — for example, by trying to dislocate the thigh of the enemy! — then he has lost even if he “wins,” because by being dishonest, he will have failed the test.

Not only does the new Ya’akov of our parasha (the one who has initiated open, honest confrontation with Eisav) play fair, he even continues to play fair when the angel-man, seeing his own lack of success, plays a dirty trick (an old-Ya’akov-type trick) and dislocates Ya’akov’s thigh. Ya’akov continues to fight fair even though the stakes are incredibly high — even when he has every reason to believe his life is at stake. Yes, Hashem Himself had helped Ya’akov use a “deception” of sorts to beat the despicably treacherous Lavan, but Ya’akov aspires to be more than “Ya’akov” — he aspires to be “Yisrael.” Only “Ya’akov” grabs at the heel of his enemy, hoping to trip him; but “Yisrael” meets his challenges face to face.


Why does Ya’akov seem so eager for a blessing from his sparring partner? And why is he so eager to know the name of the angel? Why is this important? It seems clear from Ya’akov’s actions after the angel leaves — which we will examine soon — that Ya’akov is well aware that his opponent is an angel. So what does he hope to learn from knowing the angel’s name?

The answer to this question will take us back to the end of Parashat Toledot and forward to the end of Parashat VaYishlah. But first, it will require a deeper understanding of what Ya’akov demands from the angel — a berakha. What is a berakha?

The place to look for the answer is, of course, the Torah itself. And the answer, as Abravanel points out (in Parashat Toledot), is that there are several different types of berakhot, all included under the name “berakha” because they are similar in important respects (Abravanel identifies only two categories). The first category of berakhot are those offered by Hashem Himself (there may be more than those listed here):


1) Berakha as a command: Hashem blesses the first human beings [1:28 — “va-ye-varekh otam Elokim va-yomer la-hem Elokim . . . .”] with the command to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the land and conquer it . . . .” Implied in the blessing/command is that Hashem also gives the recipient the *ability* to achieve the command; this is the “blessing” part of this blessing, along with another, more subtle gift: knowing what one’s mission is. Everyone at some time has felt the anxiety and frustration of not knowing what his task is, what he or she is here for; that knowledge is a welcome gift.

2) Berakha as gift: this is a very common usage of “berakha” in Sefer Bereishit, as we find Hashem blessing the avot every time we turn a page.

The next category of berakhot are those offered by people. There are two types:


1) Berakha as prayer: the person giving the berakha is really composing a special tefila to Hashem on behalf of the recipient of the berakha; since Hashem has given the blesser the power to bless (as He gave to the avot), this prayer has much more power than your garden-variety prayer.

2) Berakha as revelation of the future: the other type of berakha which people give to other people is the predictive berakha, which does not actually ask Hashem for anything, but instead tells the recipient what good things are in store for him (if he lives up to them).

The classic example of this type of berakha is the series of berakhot which Ya’akov gives to his sons at the end of Sefer Berieshit. On the one hand, the Torah describes what Ya’akov does as “blessing”:

BERESHIT 49:28 —
This is how their father spoke to them and BLESSED them, each man according to the BLESSING that he BLESSED them.

On the other hand, Ya’akov himself characterizes what he does as prediction of the future:

Ya’akov called to his sons and said, “Gather together, and I will tell you what shall happen to you in the end of days.”

Let us now look at the *two* berakhot Ya’akov received in Parashat Toledot: the berakha he received by tricking his father, and the berakha his father gave him with full knowledge at the end of Parashat Toledot.

The berakha really meant for Eisav:

BERESHIT 27:28-29 —
“May Hashem give you from the dew of the heaven and the fat of the land, and much grain and wine. May nations serve you, and peoples bow to you; be master of your brother, and may the children of your mother bow to you; those who curse you are cursed, those who bless you are blessed.”

This sounds a lot like a tefila-berakha, i.e., Yitzhak is praying that these good things should come to Eisav (really Ya’akov disguised, of course). It does not sound like a prediction-berakha, especially since part of the berakha (“be master . . . those who curse you . . .”) seems to be in unambiguous present tense. This means it can only be a tefila, not a prediction.

On the other hand, here is the berakha given to Ya’akov at the end of Parashat Toledot:

BERESHIT 28:3-4 —
“E-l Shad-dai SHALL BLESS YOU [ye-varekh] and increase you and multiply you, and you shall become a throng of nations. And He SHALL GIVE YOU the blessing of Avraham, to you and your children, so that you shall inherit the land in which you live, which Hashem gave to Avraham.”

This berakha is clearly very different than the previous one: instead of naming some good thing that Ya’akov will receive, as in the first berakha (i.e., dew of the heavens, fat of the land, grain, wine, leadership), it is a step removed from that: it states that Ya’akov will receive *blessings*, and only then does it goes on to say what these blessings will entail — many children, nationhood, the land:

First blessing ———> Dew, fat of land, grain, wine, leadership
Second blessing ———> Future Blessing (by E-l Shad-dai)

As we saw when we looked at Parashat Toledot, Yitzhak gave this second blessing — the blessing of spiritual leadership — to Ya’akov reluctantly. It was clear to him that Eisav was not at all a candidate for this berakha (because he had already taken wives from among the spiritually corrupt Cana’anites), but he was also reluctant to pass spritual leadership to Ya’akov, who had just deceived him into giving him the blessings meant for Eisav.

We see now that Yitzhak did not pass the spiritual leadership to Ya’akov at that time at all! The spiritual berakha Yitzhak gave to Ya’akov was only a *prediction* that in the *future,* the aspect of Hashem called “E-l Shad-dai” would come to Ya’akov and bless him with the blessing of Avraham — the Land, Eretz Cana’an, naationhood, and an everlasting relationship with Hashem. Yitzhak, as we saw when we looked at Toledot, was not at all “blind,” except in the physical sense. He saw that Ya’akov was flawed and that he was not yet ready to lead Hashem’s nation, but he also saw that Ya’akov had enormous potential. So what he passed to Ya’akov was the prediction/prayer that Ya’akov would eventually be worthy of this blessing, and that at the point when that occurred, “E-l Shad-dai” would come to Ya’akov and officially give to him these berakhot, the Birkat Avraham.

In effect, then, Yitzhak’s berakha was that Ya’akov should eventually be worthy of the spiritual berakhot to be delivered by E-l Shad-dai.

Who is this “E-l Shad-dai”? Obviously, it is Hashem, but why does Yitzhak refer to Him specifically as E-l Shad-dai? Where have we seen E-l Shad-dai before?

The first time E-l Shad-dai appears is in Parashat Lekh Lekha, in chapter 17. Hashem comes to Avraham and says, “I am E-l Shad-dai,” and proceeds to make an everlasting covenant with Avraham: Avraham will become a great nation, and Hashem will be the God of the nation forever; Avraham’s descendants will also receive the Land of Cana’an as an everlasting possession. As a sign of this covenant, Hashem commands the berit milah, the mitzvah of cicumcision.

“E-l Shad-dai” is the source of the berakha given to Avraham to found the nation which will have a special relationship with Hashem and inherit the Land. Significantly, E-l Shad-dai also redefines the individuals He blesses: He renames Avram and Sarai (Avraham and Sara), and as we will see, He also renames Ya’akov.

Ya’akov is aware of all this. He understood that his father was holding back the spiritual leadership, giving it to him only in potential — Yitzhak’s language was unmistakably not the language of blessing, but the language of prediction that Ya’akov would one day receive this blessing. Ya’akov understood that he had to earn it. And now, having learned hard lessons at the hands of Lavan, he has ‘reinvented’ himself and resolved to face the brother he cheated out of a different blessing long ago. He knows that his symbolic struggle with the angel has demonstrated his new approach to challenges. He believes he now deserves to assume the spiritual leadership. And so, when the angel renames him — and he knows that E-l Shad-dai renamed Avraham and Sara! — he is desperate to know whether the angel comes in the name of E-l Shad-dai. If so, it will mean that he has finally become worthy of the blessings and has received them!

But the angel refuses to tell him its name. Ya’akov understands that it is too early, that work still must be done before he deserves the berakhot of spiritual leadership signified by the appearance and blessing of E-l Shad-dai. We will soon see what that work is, and then we will see that E-l Shad-dai does indeed come and does indeed deliver the blessings promised by Yitzhak (almost word for word!).

Ya’akov’s reaction to the struggle with the angel shows that he understands this experience as a symbolic confrontation:

BERESHIT 32:31 —
Ya’akov called the name of the place ‘Peniel’ [=Penei E-l, “face of the powerful one,” or “face of God”], “For I have seen a powerful one face to face, and my soul was saved.”

He again emphasizes that things are now “face to face,” that he no longer meets his challenges by running or deceiving. Although the language he uses here (“elohim”) is also used to refer to Hashem, it will become clear as we go on that here it refers to “the powerful one,” meaning the representative of Edom, not to Hashem.


It is now morning, and Eisav approaches. Note that Ya’akov’s camp is no longer split into two camps, for he has already faced the great danger: last night, he faced up to (and bested) the angel who attacked him representing Eisav, so he now faces Eisav without fear. He has already beaten his internal foe, overcome his tendency to avoid trouble through deception; he has nothing more to fear from Eisav, and indeed, eagerly awaits his opportunity to greet Eisav. Ya’akov arranges his family and goes out ahead toward Eisav, bowing seven times on the way. Every time he refers to himself, he calls himself Eisav’s “servant.” Ya’akov is not just putting on a show of self-subordination and humility, trying to flatter Eisav into leaving him alone; as we will see, he is acknowledging Eisav as the true bekhor, the true firstborn, head of the family.

Eisav meets Ya’akov’s family and then he asks about the animals Ya’akov has sent him as a gift. Eisav wants to know what they are for, so Ya’akov repeats what he has said before: they are to find favor in Eisav’s eyes. Eisav, who has plenty of his own animals, politely refuses the gift, but Ya’akov insists:

BERESHIT 33:10 —
Ya’akov said, “Please do not [refuse]; if I have found favor in your eyes, take the gift from my hands, because SEEING YOUR FACE IS LIKE SEEING THAT OF A POWERFUL ONE [“elohim”], and you have accepted me.”

Ya’akov explains that seeing Eisav is a privilege for him, one worth paying for with a gift. He uses almost the exact same words to describe the confrontation with Eisav as he used to describe the confrontation the previous night with the angel-representative of Eisav. Just as “my soul was saved” despite that encounter, “you have accepted me” in this encounter. Last night, he saw “the powerful one face to face,” and now he “sees the powerful one” again.

But why is it important to Ya’akov that Eisav accept the gift of the animals? If the whole purpose of the gift is to bribe Eisav into docility, then why does Ya’akov keep insisting that Eisav take it even once it becomes clear that Eisav has decided not to kill him? Ya’akov himself tells us the answer . . . and then we understand that this gift of animals has never been a bribe in Ya’akov’s mind at all. It serves a much nobler purpose. Ya’akov begs Eisav to accept the gift with the following explanation:

BERESHIT 33:11 —
“Please TAKE MY BLESSING [birkhati], which has been brought to you, for Hashem has been generous to me, and I have everything.” He [Ya’akov] insisted, and he [Eisav] took it.

The whole purpose of this confrontation, the reason Ya’akov risks his life for this moment, is so that he can say the lines above — so that he can return to Eisav the berakha that he stole twenty years before. Ya’akov may have made an internal decision to face his challenges squarely from now on, but in order to clear the record and to deserve the spiritual leadership, he must right this old wrong. Of course, he cannot literally return the berakha, but by this symbolic gift, he admits to Eisav that what he did was wrong and asks Eisav’s forgiveness. For this reason, it is crucial that Eisav accept the gift; Ya’akov wants to walk away not only with his life intact, but also his conscience restored. Eisav understands the gesture and accepts the gift. He forgives Ya’akov.

All that remains is for Ya’akov to perform an act of leadership, guiding others to discover what he has discovered: that challenges must be faced, no matter how how painful. The opportunity to demonstrate this arrives with the rape of Ya’akov’s daughter, Dina: Shekhem, prince of a Cana’anite town, rapes Dina and wants to marry her. Ya’akov’s sons agree, provided that all the men of Shekhem undergo circumcision. The people of Shekhem undergo circumcision, and, taking advantage of the recuperating men’s weakness, Shimon and Leivi massacre the town. Ya’akov reacts in horror:

BERESHIT 34:30 —
Ya’akov said to Shimon and Leivi, “You have befouled me, sullying me among the people of the land, the Cana’ani and the Perizi, and I am few in number; they will gather against me and strike me, and I and my household will be destroyed.”

Shimon and Leivi protest, unable to accept their father’s criticism in the face of the injustice done their sister. But Ya’akov has learned that no matter what is at stake, whether leadership of the family (which he acquired through deceit), his wives, children, and wealth (which he protected by deceiving Lavan and running away), or even his own life (which he saved by running from Eisav and then risked by confronting him), deceit is unacceptable. Ya’akov expects revenge for this deceit to be visited on him by the neighboring nations.

The nations never bother Ya’akov. In fact, we hear later that they are afraid of Ya’akov and his family. But the reason Ya’akov’s family is spared the consequences of this deceit is because Ya’akov has spoken out against it, not because the nations fear the fierceness of Ya’akov’s sons:

They traveled, and the FEAR OF HASHEM was upon the cities around them, and they did not chase after the children of Ya’akov.

The Torah is telling us that the reason they did not pursue the children of Ya’akov — i.e., those responsible for the massacre — is because Hashem placed fear upon them, not because they were impressed with the ferocity and craftiness of Ya’akov’s sons.

At this point, Hashem signals to Ya’akov that he has merited the spiritual berakhot. Hashem commands him to go to Beit El and make an altar to Hashem. Hashem appears to Ya’akov there and delivers the following message:

BERESHIT 35:9-12 —
Hashem appeared to Ya’akov as he came from Padan Aram, and blessed him. Hashem said to him, “Your name, ‘Ya’akov,’ shall no longer be your name; instead, ‘Yisrael’ shall be your name,” and He called his name Yisrael. Hashem said to him, “I am E-l Shad-dai; be fruitful and multiply. A nation, a throng of nations shall come from you, and kings shall emerge from your loins. And the land I gave to Avraham and to Yitzhak, to you I shall give it, and to your children after you, I shall give the land.”

Hashem changes Ya’akov’s name to Yisrael [“One Who Struggles with the Powerful,” or “Powerful Righteous One”], symbolizing the finality of Ya’akov’s personal transformation, and then informs him that He comes as E-l Shad-dai, the Powerful Provider, the One who grants Ya’akov the destiny of nationhood and the gift of the holy land given to Ya’akov’s fathers.

With this, Ya’akov receives the berakhot which Yitzhak knew he had the potential to earn. And with this, his major challenge is completed, his great test passed. From this point, Ya’akov begins to share authority with his sons, although he remains the final power in the family. Ya’akov has become Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat VaYetze: Measure for Measure



As Parashat VaYetze opens, Ya’akov Avinu flees his murder-minded brother Eisav. The parasha splits neatly into three units, as Abravanel points out:

1) Ya’akov’s flight from Cana’an (home) and arrival in Haran, Lavan’s abode.
2) The growth of Ya’akov’s family and flock in Lavan’s household.
3) Ya’akov’s flight from Haran (and Lavan) back to Cana’an.

We will focus primarily on the interactions of Ya’akov and Lavan throughout the parasha. Our main assumptions and main questions will be the following:

The Ya’akov we left at the end of Parashat Toledot was a person who came off significantly better than his brother Eisav, but who still displayed characteristics which left us wondering about his style in dealing with challenges. In particular, we were left wondering about his honesty and straightforwardness. But as we follow him through the events of Parashat VaYetze and VaYishlah, we will be able to watch as he overcomes his earlier personal obstacles and exhibits characteristics truly worthy of emulation.

As readers of the Torah, we are not patronizingly observing Ya’akov as he mends his ways; we should be joining him in this odyssey, and, I would suggest, may need to learn these lessons more than he.

1) What events take place in this parasha which shape Ya’akov’s character?

2) Clearly, Ya’akov flees home to escape from his brother Eisav. But from a “divine plan” perspective, why has Ya’akov been sent to Haran, to his Uncle Lavan’s house? What is he there to learn? And how can Lavan, his unscrupulous uncle, be the right kind of teacher to teach Ya’akov what he needs to learn?

3) Are there any signs that Ya’akov has changed? What events of the parasha indicate a change in the way Ya’akov deals with challenges?

4) Remember that VaYetze is a bridge between Toledot, where the Ya’akov-Eisav saga begins, and VaYishlah, where that saga concludes. That means that we should be looking for signs of transition and change, but not necessarily for decisive, dramatic events; decisive events usually come at conclusions, and, as mentioned, the conclusion comes only next week.


Parashat VaYetze begins with Ya’akov journeying from home — Be’er Sheva — to the house of Uncle Lavan in Haran. Ostensibly, he is headed for Haran to accomplish two goals: one, to escape the murderous wrath of his brother Eisav, from whom he has usurped the blessings of the firstborn, and two, to find a wife among the daughters of Lavan. But as we will see, he must also go to Haran in order to spend twenty years under the careful tutelage of Lavan; Ya’akov has a lot to learn from his uncle, the grand-daddy of all swindlers.

Before we take a careful look at the interactions between Ya’akov and Lavan in the parasha, we should just take note of a few interesting patterns. These patterns deserve more development than we will give them, but we leave that for another time.


The first pattern is a reversal of something we’ve seen before: Ya’akov leaves Cana’an, the future Land of Israel, heading for an uncertain future in unfamiliar territory. Avraham, his grandfather, faced the same situation as he *entered* Cana’an in obedience to Hashem’s command. Both grandfather and grandson leave their homeland and birthplace; both grandfather and grandson receive a blessing from Hashem at this uncertain time. Note the great similarity of the two blessings:


BERESHIT 12:2-3 — “I shall make you a great nation, and bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you, and ALL THE NATIONS OF THE LAND SHALL BE BLESSED THROUGH YOU . . .” (14-15) Hashem said to Avram, after Lot had departed from him, “Raise your eyes and look, from the place you are, TO THE NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, AND WEST, for all the land you see, I SHALL GIVE IT TO YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN FOREVER. I SHALL MAKE YOUR CHILDREN LIKE THE DUST OF THE EARTH . . . .”


BERESHIT 28:12-14 — He dreamed: there was a ladder standing on the ground, with its head reaching the heavens, and angels of Hashem ascending and descending it. Hashem stood upon it, and said, “I am Hashem, Lord of Avraham, your father, and Lord of Yitzhak. The land you are lying upon — I SHALL GIVE IT TO YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN. YOUR CHILDREN SHALL BE LIKE THE DUST OF THE EARTH, and you shall burst forth TO THE WEST, EAST, NORTH, AND SOUTH; THROUGH YOU, ALL THE NATIONS OF THE LAND SHALL BE BLESSED, AND THROUGH YOUR CHILDREN.”

Ya’akov’s return journey to Cana’an at the end of the parasha also echoes the journey of his grandfather to Cana’an:


BERESHIT 12:1 — Hashem said to Avram, “Go FROM YOUR LAND, your BIRTHPLACE, your FATHER’S house, to the land I will show you.”


BERESHIT 31:3 — Hashem said to Ya’akov, “Return to the LAND OF YOUR FATHERS, to your BIRTHPLACE, and I shall be with you.”

Ya’akov has come full circle by the end of the parasha, both paralleling and reversing patterns of his grandfather’s life. In leaving home, Avraham journeys from Aram to Cana’an, while Ya’akov, in leaving home, journeys from Cana’an to Aram. Leaving his life behind and moving to Cana’an is what enables Avraham to achieve his personal religious mission. In some parallel way — as we will see — leaving his life behind and moving to Aram is what enables Ya’akov to achieve his own personal religious mission.


What does Ya’akov gain from living in Lavan’s household for twenty years? At first, from a cursory reading of the latter part of the parasha, the answer seems obvious: lots of sheep! Using his cleverness, he makes himself rich by shepherding Lavan’s flock of sheep and reserving certain types of animals for himself. But in terms of his personal religious and moral development, what has he gained over this period?

Not long after Ya’akov’s arrival in Haran, Lavan generously offers to pay him for his services as a shepherd. Uncle and nephew arrange that Ya’akov will work for Lavan for seven years to earn the hand of Lavan’s beautiful younger daughter, Rahel. The seven years pass like days for the eager Ya’akov, but Lavan has a surprise waiting for Ya’akov at the ‘altar’:

BERESHIT 29:22-27 —
Lavan gathered all the local people and made a party. In the evening, he took Le’ah, his daughter, and brought her to him [Ya’akov], and he came to her . . . . In the morning, there was Le’ah! He said to Lavan, “What is this that you have done to me? Was it not for Rahel that I worked for you? Why have you deceived me?!” Lavan said, “It is not done, here, to place the younger before the older. Finish out this week, and the other one [Rahel] will be given to you also for work that you do for me, for another seven years.”

Lavan paints the episode as a misunderstanding. He had “assumed” that Ya’akov had understood that the elder daughter had to be married off first, and that Ya’akov had known that the woman he had married the night before had been Le’ah. How could anyone have thought otherwise? Of course, Rahel as well can be Ya’akov’s if he wants her — but only for the going rate: seven more years! Lavan, of course, knows blessed hands when he sees them, and he sees them on Ya’akov, as he himself notes later on in the parasha. He will do whatever is necessary to keep his nephew working for him and making him rich.

But Lavan’s language is a bit more pointed than this. He stresses that it is not done “HERE” to place the younger before the older. Lavan may not consciously intend to imply that there *is* a place where the younger *is* put before the older, but his language cannot fail to remind Ya’akov (and us) of the events of the previous parasha, when Ya’akov placed himself, the younger, before Eisav, the older. Lavan may be aware of this misdeed (the Torah tells us that upon his arrival, Ya’akov informs Lavan of “all these matters”), and reminds Ya’akov of it in order to silence him. But his motivation in deceiving Ya’akov is not to avenge the wrong done to Yitzhak and Eisav (the picture of Lavan as righteous avenger being somewhat improbable in view of his character and his activities in our parasha!), it is to make sure that Ya’akov stays on as his right hand man. The bigger picture, however, and the one which must appear before Ya’akov’s eyes at this time, is that he has just received his wages, ‘mida ke-neged mida,’ measure for measure. He is being punished for his deceit, for usurping the blessings from his older brother.


Being on the receiving end of a deception of this proportion is a learning experience for Ya’akov. Not only has justice been served in a retributive sense, but Ya’akov, in his bitterness at what has been done to him, also begins to appreciate the bitterness of Eisav’s cry upon discovering that his blessings have been taken. As the sunrise stuns him with the revelation that the woman with whom he has shared intimacy is Le’ah and not the beloved Rahel, he begins to understand the “harada gedola ad me’od,” the great trembling fear, which gripped Yitzhak when he realized he had been duped and blessed the wrong son. One of the reasons Ya’akov has been delivered by divine plan into Lavan’s custody is so that he can appreciate what it means to be the victim of a swindle. And one of the reasons Ya’akov is silent, that he accepts Lavan’s terms, is because he realizes that Lavan has been the vehicle to deliver his punishment and teach him a lesson.

This is not a just a slap on the wrist. Lavan’s deceit all but guarantees that Ya’akov will never be happy in marriage. He can either agree to work another seven years in order to marry Rahel — in which case he can be sure that the two sisters will fill his life with conflict and jealousy in their competition for affection and fertility — or he can abandon his love for Rahel and remain with Le’ah alone, frustrated with unrequited love for Rahel and bitter with lifelong resentment for the wife who married him in deceit. Ya’akov chooses to marry Rahel as well as Le’ah, and the center stage of the parasha is held by Le’ah’s despair of ever earning her husband’s love and by the jealousy and strife which erupts between the sisters over Ya’akov’s affection and over fertility. The Torah is telling us that Ya’akov pays dearly for the blessings he stole.


BERESHIT 30:30-31–
. . . And he [Ya’akov] loved Rahel more than Le’ah . . . . Hashem saw that Le’ah was despised, and opened her womb, but Rahel was barren.

Rahel is better loved, so Hashem “evens the score” by granting fertility to Leah and not to Rahel. This inequity makes no one happy, as the Torah goes on to report:

BERESHIT 30:32-35 —
Le’ah conceived and bore a son. She called him Re’uvein [= “see, a son!”], because she said, “For Hashem has seen my suffering, for now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and bore a son. She said, “For Hashem heard [“shama”] that I am despised, and gave me also this one”, and she called his name Shimon [“listen”]. She conceived again and bore a son. She said, “Now — this time — my husband will be drawn [“laveh”] to me, because I have borne to him three sons!”, so she called his name Leivi [“drawn to me”]. She conceived again and bore a son. She said, “This time, I will praise [“odeh”] Hashem,” so she called his named Yehuda [“praise God”], and she bore no more.

Ya’akov is unmoved by Le’ah’s remarkable fertility, despite her continued success at producing sons, certainly the preferred flavor of child in those times. The Torah traces Leah’s hopes for Ya’akov’s affection as they wax through the births of the first three sons and then wane with the birth of the fourth son and Le’ah’s realization that Ya’akov will not love her for her fertility:

Name Meaning
RE’UVEIN —> “Look! A son!”
SHIMON —> “Listen!”
LEIVI —> “Come to me!”
YEHUDA —> “Praised be Hashem” (Le’ah has given up).

Le’ah can communicate with her husband only through the names of her sons because children are the only path she can imagine to her husband’s affection; she knows that she alone can never attract Ya’akov, for, as the Midrash Tanhuma richly illustrates, Le’ah reminds Ya’akov of himself: just as Ya’akov executes the plan masterminded by his mother to fool his father, so Le’ah executes the plan conceived by her father to fool Ya’akov. Le’ah will always remind Ya’akov of his own guilt. Desperately, she tries to open the lines of communication by naming her sons as cries to her husband for love and attention, but by the fourth son, she senses her failure and thanks Hashem through the final name for at least giving her the chance to communicate with Ya’akov.

[In the Midrash Tanhuma, Le’ah responds to Ya’akov’s accusation of deception by reminding him of his own deception of his father; Ya’akov in turn begins to hate her; and Hashem gives Le’ah children to help her attract Ya’akov’s love.]


Rahel is not comforted to see that Le’ah’s fertility has earned her no grace in Ya’akov’s eyes. She counts four sons to Le’ah’s credit, which is four more than she can claim. She, too, becomes desperate:

BERESHIT 30:1-2 —
Rahel saw that she had not borne to Ya’akov, and she envied her sister. She said to Ya’akov, “Give me children . . . if not, I am dead!” Ya’akov became angry at her and said, “Am I in Hashem’s place, Who has denied to you fruit of the womb?”
Barrenness would be a catastrophe under any circumstance; the fact that Rahel measures herself against another wife, and the fact that this wife is her sister, makes her struggle even more desperate. But, as Hazal point out, Ya’akov has no sympathy for her melodramatic outburst, although she is the wife he loves best.

Rahel gives her maid to Ya’akov as a wife in hopes of achieving fertility vicariously; when she does, she names her children to reflect her struggle, and in particular, her struggle with her sister (“I have struggled [“niftalti”] with my sister, and won!”). Le’ah responds by giving her own maid to Ya’akov, and the names of the children she bears reflect her rekindled effort to attract Ya’akov’s attention by having children.


Rahel and Le’ah clash once again over the duda’im, the mandrakes, which Le’ah’s son Re’uvein finds in the fields and gives to his mother. Presumably, Rahel believes in their power as a fertility drug, so she asks Le’ah for some. Le’ah explodes in frustration: “Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband, that you now want to take my son’s mandrakes as well?” Read, “You already have the love of the husband whom I want so much to love me, and now you want my help in having children so you can prevail in that category as well?!”

Le’ah eventually agrees to sell the mandrakes to Rahel for the privilege of having a night with Ya’akov, and when Ya’akov returns from a day in the fields, she informs him frankly that she has “hired him” [“sekhor sekhartikha”] for the night with her mandrakes. The Torah does not tell us how Ya’akov reacts to this information, but there must be something unpleasant about being informed by your wives that they consider sexual intimacy with you something that can be traded. Le’ah’s role in this scene is most prominent, as she purposefully meets Ya’akov as he comes from the fields and lays claim to him for the night: “You will come to me, because I have ‘hired you’ with my son’s mandrakes.”

There may be a hint of an echo in this scene to the sale of the birthright, which Ya’akov bought from Eisav for a bowl of soup. The Torah there characterizes Eisav’s attitude as “va-yivez Eisav et ha-behora” — “Eisav treated the birthright with contempt.” Perhaps Ya’akov is being punished for manipulating the impulsive, foresightless Eisav into treating the birthright with contempt by being treated with contempt himself.

Once Rahel has achieved fertility through the birth of Yosef, some stability comes to the household, and Ya’akov turns to the business of getting rich. He offers Lavan a deal too good to be true — and it is — and proceeds to build his flocks out of the flocks of Lavan.


Ya’akov agrees with Lavan that as payment for tending Lavan’s flocks, Ya’akov will keep all spotted, speckled and striped sheep produced by the flock. In order to minimize the number of sheep Ya’akov will receive, Lavan removes all of the spotted, speckled and striped sheep from the flock and sets them aside, so that even if they produce offspring like themselves, Ya’akov will not receive them since they are not part of the flocks he is tending. The Torah then describes how Ya’akov cleverly influences the genes of fetuses of the pregnant sheep by placing spotted and speckled objects in front of the sheep as they drink water from their troughs: this tactic changes the fetuses of the sheep, it seems, from plain brown or white to spotted, speckled, and striped. The result: Ya’akov walks away rich, as almost all of the sheep bear animals with the markings favorable to him.

Of course, it is generally understood nowadays that looking at things during pregnancy does not affect the characteristics of the fetus. So how was Ya’akov’s strategy effective? Was it a miracle? From the way the Torah presents Ya’akov’s activities, it certainly doesn’t sound like it. In an article in Tradition (1966, vol. 7, p. 5), Dr. William Etkin, a biologist, offered the following novel interpretation.

Later on in the story, Ya’akov describes to his wives that an angel had visited him in a dream and shown him that all of the females of Lavan’s flocks had **already** been impregnated by speckled and spotted male animals — meaning that they would produce spotted, speckled and striped offspring. Although Lavan had removed the spotted and speckled sheep from the flock to make sure Ya’akov earned little, Hashem foiled his plan by having those sheep impregnate the females before Lavan separated them off from the flock. The angel had told Ya’akov that Hashem had done this because He had seen how Lavan had mistreated Ya’akov.

Etkin suggests that this vision was a divine revelation that all of the female sheep had **already** been impregnated by speckled and spotted sheep, and it hinted to Ya’akov to suggest the “speckled and spotted” plan to Lavan as his wage plan. Lavan, of course, had no idea that the animals had already mated with the speckled and spotted males, thought Ya’akov’s plan ridiculous, and promptly removed all the speckled and spotted adult animals so that no further speckled and spotted animals would be produced from the flocks under Ya’akov’s care. All of Ya’akov’s shenanigans with peeled sticks and his other machinations to get the animals to view certain patterns of colors and shapes were only to fool Lavan and his suspicious sons, who believed (along with most other folks at the time) that viewing patterns could affect heredity. They would have been doubly suspicious if Ya’akov had not gone through these motions, and would have assumed that Ya’akov had simply stolen the spotted and speckled animals from their private store of spotted and speckled sheep.


Ya’akov continues his pattern of avoiding facing challenges directly as the parasha draws to its dramatic close. Stealing away stealthily, he and his family run away without telling Lavan they are going. He has good reasons: Lavan and his sons have become openly resentful of his growing wealth at their expense, and Hashem has commanded Ya’akov to leave Haran and return to Cana’an. Once he has become rich, he calls a conference with his wives and tells them his plans and these reasons. Normally, biblical men do not consult their wives on decisions, but since Ya’akov is planning to sneak away, he needs everyone’s agreement and cooperation. Ya’akov reveals here that Lavan has been trying to cheat him for the last six years as he builds up his own flock, and that Hashem has stood behind him and foiled Lavan’s schemes. But the Torah also communicates clearly that sneaking away is the wrong way to end this relationship:

BERESHIT 31:20-23 —
Ya’akov STOLE the heart of Lavan the Aramean by not telling him that he was RUNNING AWAY. He RAN AWAY with all that was his; he arose and crossed the river, and turned toward Mount Gilead. It was told to Lavan on the third day that Ya’akov had RUN AWAY. He took his brothers with him and chased after him . . . .

As far as the Torah is concerned, Ya’akov’s pattern of theft continues with this flight. He stole the birthright from Eisav, stole the blessings from Yitzhak and Eisav, stole away from Be’er Sheva to avoid Eisav, and now he steals away again. The word “bore’ah” (bet, reish, het) is given special prominence here in order to remind us of an earlier “bore’ah” — when he fled from Cana’an to Aram. Just as he ran then from Eisav instead of facing him and seeking a resolution, so he now runs from Lavan instead of facing him and taking leave in a proper — although more risky — fashion. Taking leave in the normal fashion is risky because Lavan is capable of feats of deceit that Ya’akov knows he may not be able to anticipate and control. Rather than take this risk, he bolts.


Finally, after three days of pursuit, Lavan and his men confront Ya’akov. Lavan delivers an angry speech, accusing Ya’akov of two different thefts:

BERESHIT 31:26-30 —
Lavan said to Ya’akov, “What have you done? You have *stolen* my heart! You have treated my daughters like captives of the sword! Why did you sneak to run away, *stealing* me and not telling me — I would have sent you off with gladness and songs, with timbrel and lyre! You did not allow me to kiss my sons and daughters — indeed, you have done foolishly! I have the power to do evil to you, but the God of your fathers said to me last night, ‘Take care not to speak to Ya’akov, whether good to bad.’ Now you have gone, because you wanted so much to go to your father’s house — but why have you *stolen* my gods?”

Ya’akov trades an accusation of theft for an accusation of theft, responding that he ran away because he was afraid that Lavan would *steal* his daughters away. Indeed, Lavan’s past dishonesty on the issue of his daughters supports Ya’akov’s accusation. On the question of Lavan’s stolen gods, Ya’akov is certain that Lavan has made this up and that no one from his camp has stolen them — otherwise Ya’akov would never have pronounced a death sentence on the thief. Ya’akov invites Lavan to search his belongings.

Lavan accepts the invitation, but as he searches, Ya’akov, who is sure that this is all a charade, an excuse for Lavan to sift through his belongings, gets angrier and angrier. Finally, he explodes, and in this explosion, through the ensuing confrontation, “Ya’akov” begins to rise to “Yisrael”:

BERESHIT 31:36-42 —
Ya’akov became enraged, and he fought with Lavan. Ya’akov began and said to Lavan, “What is my crime, what is my sin, that you have chased like a fire after me? You have felt through all of my possessions — what have you found that belongs to you? Place it here, before my brothers and your brothers, and they will judge between us! For twenty years I have been with you: your sheep and goats never lost child; I never ate your rams. I never brought you a torn animal — I took responsibility for it myself when you sought it of me, whether stolen from me during the day or night. During the day drought consumed me, and frost at night, and sleep evaded my eyes. It is now twenty years that I am in your house; I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your sheep, and you switched my wages ten times! If not for the God of my fathers — God of Avraham and Awe of Yitzhak — Who was with me, you would have sent me out empty-handed! My suffering and my hard labor did Hashem see, and chastised [you] last night!”

Ya’akov never really believed that someone from his camp had stolen Lavan’s gods, but he contained himself because of the chance that someone had taken them without his knowledge. But now that Lavan has searched everywhere and found nothing, Ya’akov’s fury bursts forth. Since the accusation about the gods was obviously false, Ya’akov demands to know why Lavan has pursued him. Moreover, the accusation of theft and dishonesty stings Ya’akov painfully, as his twenty years of meticulous honesty in tending Lavan’s sheep are rewarded with an accusation of theft. Twenty years of frustration pour out of Ya’akov, and we — and Lavan — learn for the first time just how seriously he has taken his responsibilities as shepherd. He has been scrupulously honest, going further than legally necessary, paying out of his own pocket for sheep destroyed by predators or stolen by thieves. He has suffered physically as well, exposed to the elements and deprived of rest. And Lavan can accuse him of theft!

The secret tragedy which makes us cringe as we hear Ya’akov pronounce a death sentence is that Rahel has indeed stolen Lavan’s gods. But the situation provides Ya’akov with an opportunity for growth. Finally, instead of running from the challenge or attempting to avoid it with cleverness, Ya’akov takes Lavan on directly and indignantly. This is the first visible step in Ya’akov’s growth to “Yisrael,” a process which will become much more explicit and reach completion in Parashat VaYishlah. He ran away to avoid Lavan, and even this confrontation itself was initiated by Lavan, not Ya’akov, but now that it is before him, he addresses it as the “ish yode’a tsayyid,” the hunting man, who channels his aggression into constructive paths, actively pursues his goals, and confronts his enemies and challenges. Ya’akov is aggressive and direct, no longer cunning, subtle and clever. And Lavan, surprised, blusters, boasts, but backs down:

BERESHIT 31:43-32:1 —
Lavan answered and said to Ya’akov, “The daughters are my daughters, the sons my sons, the sheep my sheep, and everything you see is mine. As for my daughters, what can I do to them now, or to the children they have borne? Now, let us make a covenant, me and you, and it shall be a witness between us. If you afflict my daughters, or if you take more wives in addition to them, no one will be there [to see], but know that Hashem is witness between me and you . . . I will not pass this pile, and you will not pass this pile or this altar, for evil” . . . . Lavan awoke in the morning, kissed his sons and daughters and blessed them, and went and returned to his place.

Lavan has no response to Ya’akov’s outburst because he knows Ya’akov has dealt with his sheep honestly and self-sacrificingly. And he is convinced that Ya’akov has not stolen his gods. But he cannot explicitly apologize, so he blusters, claiming that everything that is Ya’akov’s is really his, that he is letting Ya’akov keep these things out of generosity, insisting that he means no evil toward his daughters or grandchildren. Lavan realizes how foolish he looks accusing Ya’akov of theft and dishonesty, so he must shift the focus: he demands that they make a covenant. Suddenly Lavan, who is more responsible than anyone else for the fact that both of his daughters have married the same man, has developed great concern for their welfare and wants a guarantee that Ya’akov will not mistreat them! This is surely disingenuous, as Rahel and Le’ah testify earlier that their father has ‘sold them away,’ that they are estranged from him, and that he intends to give them nothing of his estate. But Lavan must save face, so he pretends that his real mission is to extract a guarantee from Ya’akov to treat his daughters fairly. And for good measure, he adds a phrase about his and Ya’akov’s not harming each other. But Ya’akov has won, and Lavan goes home without his gods, without his daughters, and without his sheep.

At the very end of the parasha, as at the very beginning, Ya’akov has a vision of angels. And just as then, they come at a time of uncertainty for him, as he struggles to redefine himself and prepares to face his brother, Eisav. Next week we will accompany Ya’akov as he confronts Eisav and transforms himself into Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Toldot: Meet the Yaakov Avinu of Peshat


First, some questions we will not answer:

1. Our parasha records many events in the life of Yitzhak which closely parallel or exactly duplicate events in the life of his father. This link between father and son is made explicit in the Torah, which not only records these events, but also notes that Avraham engaged in the same activities (and promises Yitzhak good things in the merit of his father). Perhaps Yitzhak never emerges from the long shadow of his father to accomplish new goals, yet the Torah takes the trouble to repeat all of these events for our edification. What is Yitzhak all about, and what does he teach us?

2. In the same verse in which the Torah tells us that Yitzhak and Rivka are unable to bear children, and that they turn to prayer (25:21), the Torah also tells us that Hashem responds and grants them children. How long does it take Hashem to respond? What does this teach us?

Questions we will answer:

1. Our parasha introduces Ya’akov and Eisav, who battle each other in the womb, conduct commerce for the rights of the first-born, and compete for their father’s blessing.

2. What kind of person is Ya’akov? What does the Torah’s description of him, “Ish tam, yoshev ohalim” (25:27), mean?

3. Is it proper for Ya’akov to demand the rights of the first-born from the hungry Eisav, in return for the stew Ya’akov has made? And what are these rights of the first-born anyway?

4. Ya’akov’s mother, Rivka, comes up with the scheme for her son Ya’akov to lie and trick Yitzhak, his father, into giving him the blessing meant for Eisav. Why does Rivka advise Ya’akov to do something dishonest? Is Ya’akov right to follow her instructions and deceive Yitzhak?

5. Yitzhak, we know, prefers Eisav to Ya’akov. Could Eisav truly be worthy of this preference, or has he fooled Yitzhak into admiring him? What does Yitzhak admire about Eisav anyway?

6. We would expect Yitzhak to be furious once he realizes Ya’akov has tricked him by taking the berakha (blessing) meant for Eisav. If so, why does Yitzhak give Ya’akov yet ANOTHER blessing shortly before Ya’akov runs away to escape Eisav’s wrath? Also, since Yitzhak has already blessed Ya’akov (mistakenly), why bless him again?


Until Parashat Toledot, some of the narratives we have seen have been clear and some subtle, but by and large we have been able to find coherent solutions to our questions. This week’s parasha is the most challenging so far, since the evidence available for solving our problems is so scanty or contradictory. All stories in Tanakh have certain gaps which must be filled, but sometimes that task is particularly hard. On the other hand, one of the most rewarding activities in learning Torah is filling these gaps.

Most of the questions above are “local” — questions about specific events in the parasha. Although we must answer these local questions in order to understand the parasha, one basic question awaits in the background which makes the events of the parasha meaningful as more than just a complex narrative:

One of our the main motifs we encounter as we move through this sefer (book) is the question of who will be chosen to build the the nation to maintain a special relationship with Hashem (God). We have thought a lot about what makes Avraham special, and, among his sons, what about Yishmael makes him unfit for leadership as Avraham’s successor. (We have not talked about what makes Yitzhak an appropriate successor; perhaps in the future.) Now we come to Ya’akov and Eisav: what makes Ya’akov better than Eisav? Since the Torah spends so much time unfolding the saga of the relationship between Ya’akov and Eisav, it is clearly one of our jobs to figure out what the difference is between these twins, why one is chosen to found the nation and the other rejected.

One problem with answering this question during this shiur is that we don’t yet have a lot of the information we need. Our parasha gives us only our first glimpse of Ya’akov, but Ya’akov is a complex figure whose development stretches over a number of parshiot. We are not yet ready to decide who Ya’akov is, what his strengths are. This limits us to doing what analysis we can and suspending judgment about the rest until we get there.

[I have written an article-type analysis spanning Toledot, VaYetze, and YaYishlah, focusing on the Ya’akov-Eisav relationship. If you are interested, and you have Microsoft Word Hebrew version, drop me a line at and I will send it to you as an attachment to an email message — but only on the condition that you send me your comments! If you don’t know what an “attachment” is, ask a computer-wiz friend.]


In the very beginning of the parasha, the Torah introduces the brothers. Eisav is an “ish yode’a tzayyid, ish sadeh,” “A man who knows hunting, a man of the field.” Eisav is a hunter, comfortable with the physically demanding life of the outdoors, trained to channel his aggression, accustomed to the danger of the hunt, skilled in using weapons.

Ya’akov, on the other hand, is an “ish tam, yoshev ohalim” — “A ‘tam’ man, a dweller of tents.” “Tam” in Tanakh (the Bible) usually parallels the word “yashar” and means the same thing or something similar — “straight,” “upright,” “righteous.” It is related to the word “tamim,” “perfect,” “having no blemish.”


The problem with this description of Ya’akov is that just after the description, the Torah tells us that Ya’akov pulls off a deal with his brother to buy the birthright from him for a bowl of soup! Now, let’s assume Eisav was stupid enough to agree to this deal: does it seem ‘tam’ (‘righteous’) for Ya’akov to take advantage of that stupidity by offering a bowl of soup in exchange for something so important? To make matters worse, later in the parasha Ya’akov lies to his father, tricking Yitzhak into giving him the berakha (blessing) meant for Eisav by impersonating Eisav. Is this what a ‘tzaddik’ would do? Does this sound ‘yashar’ to you?

We may have to look for another interpretation of the word ‘tam,’ since Ya’akov’s activities hardly seem ‘yashar.’ Even if there might be some way to justify his actions, they could hardly be described as “straight”! What else could ‘tam’ mean?

If you look at the way the Torah describes the brothers, it is clear that the Torah intends to parallel the two brothers so that we can appreciate the contrast between them:

  Eisav Ya’akov
A) yode’a tzayyid —-> ish tam

B) ish sadeh ————> yoshev ohalim

The second pair in this parallel is pretty clear: Eisav is a man of the field, prepared to deal with the outside world, while Ya’akov prefers to be alone among his tents, tending the sheep. What about the first parallel? The Torah contrasts the two brothers: while Eisav has trained his aggressive instincts and has become a ‘yode’a tzayyid,’ someone who knows how to pursue, confront, and subdue, Ya’akov has not developed these abilities; as Rashi comments, “tam” means he is “not expert in all these.” He is not a hunter; his aggressions are untrained. What the Torah is really telling us by using the word ‘tam’ is not that Ya’akov is a saint, but that he is unaggressive, that he avoids direct conflict. At this point, it is not clear whether this is good or bad, but it sets the stage for many of the events ahead in Ya’akov’s life.

[‘Yoshev ohalim,’ by the way, is a phrase we have already come across: we read in Parashat Bereishit that one of Lemekh’s wives, Ada, had a son named Yaval, who, the Torah tells us, is “avi kol YOSHEV OHEL u-mikneh,” the first to pasture his flock on a sort of nomadic basis, moving his tent to a new pasture whenever the local pasture has been consumed by the flock. So Ya’akov is a nomadic shepherd, moving his tent with the flock (see Rashbam).]


So Ya’akov buys the birthright from Eisav for some stew. What is the birthright — to what does it entitle the first-born?

Ibn Ezra and Rashbam suggest that it is the right to collect a double portion of the estate of the father once he has died. (This is clearly the meaning of birthright later in the Torah, when the Torah tells us that a person must give his firstborn son a double portion, but it’s not obvious that it means that here.) Ibn Ezra adds that some say that the birthright also entitles the firstborn to the respect and honor of the rest of the brothers. In any event, there is no question that the birthright is of great significance.

If so, how we understand Eisav’s willingness to trade the birthright for stew? True, Eisav claims to be so famished that he is “dying,” but a careful look shows that Eisav is only exaggerating, as the Torah describes his state as ‘ayef,’ simply ‘tired’ — not quite dying. But if Eisav is not dying, why does he agree to sell the birthright to Ya’akov? What kind of negotiator is this Eisav to sell his birthright for a song (well, for a stew)?

Eisav is a man of action — but not a man of foresight. He knows how to behave when arrows fly at him, when a mountain lion bares its fangs, when a gazelle leaps across his path. But that is exactly the point: Eisav is a man with a hair trigger, gifted with quicksilver reflexes and jungle-tuned intuition, brave and bold . . . but he’s not too subtle. He does not understand (or can’t discipline himself to obey) the first principle of investment: delaying enjoyment in the present to guarantee greater enjoyment in the future (i.e., “save up”). You have to forego spending some of your money today so you can invest it and turn into more money. Eisav cares only that he is hungry and that he has a valuable commodity — his birthright. He focuses on today, on the empty feeling in his belly, ignoring tomorrow, when he will regret having squandered the birthright on something so silly.

But Eisav is no moron; he must rationalize this obviously boneheaded decision, so he exaggerates — “Here I am dying, what good will the birthright do for me!” Even Eisav knows this is nonsense as he says it, but every one of us has been in Eisav’s shoes and can understand his thoughtlessness. [You just started a diet — green vegetables and tofu — and some evil tempter offers you ice cream cake. In a flash, your creative faculties proffer ten arguments to justify ‘making an exception this time.’ A moment’s rational thought would shatter the arguments, but with the food right there, the strength of the arguments becomes irrelevant.]

Given Eisav’s personality, it does seem wrong for Ya’akov to offer this deal to him. Ya’akov must know that Eisav is a live-for-the-moment kind of person. In fact, that seems to be precisely why he offers Eisav this deal, for who but someone like Eisav would even contemplate Ya’akov’s offer? Ya’akov’s salesmanship, then, seems underhanded.

Neither brother comes out of this story looking very sympathetic: Ya’akov has gotten the better half of a less-than-fair deal, and Eisav has demonstrated irresponsible impulsiveness. As we go on, we will see that both brothers continue to display these qualities.


Rivka commands Ya’akov to do something dishonest: to take advantage of his father Yitzhak’s blindness to trick him into blessing him with the blessing meant for Eisav, Yitzhak’s favorite. Why doesn’t Rivka try to speak to Yitzhak instead of advising Ya’akov to deceive him; more troubling, what justifies the lie she places in Ya’akov’s mouth? And is it right for Ya’akov to obey her instructions?

When Rivka was pregnant with Ya’akov and Eisav and felt the two fetuses jumping around inside her, she was worried and consulted Hashem. She was told that two nations were struggling within her, but that “rav ya’avod tza’ir,” the elder would serve the younger. Now, to her chagrin, she sees that Yitzhak is planning to give the berakha (blessing) of family leadership to Eisav — the wrong son, according to what she had been told during her turbulent pregnancy — so she decides to ‘correct’ the mistake.

This raises another question: why doesn’t Rivka correct the mistake the easy way, by just telling her husband about her prophetic pregnancy? It’s not clear, but maybe the next answer to our first question — what motivates Rivka to plan this trickery — will answer this as well.

Rivka prefers Ya’akov to Eisav, the Torah tells us, and Yitzhak prefers Eisav; there is a deep conflict between the parents over their affection for their children. This conflict might not be explicit, as Yitzhak and Rivka do not necessarily state which son they each prefer, but people have many ways of communicating their preferences and understanding the unspoken preferences of others. Rivka must have seen Yitzhak often giving preferential treatment to Eisav, so she understands that Yitzhak prefers his elder son. And Yitzhak probably understands the same about Rivka’s feelings for Ya’akov. In this context, Rivka may suspect that Yitzhak will not believe her if she tells him of her prophecy that Ya’akov, the younger, will rule over his older brother; Yitzhak might think she is only trying to promote her favorite son. Since she cannot be open with her husband, she feels compelled to trick him in order to follow the prophecy she has received.


But does Ya’akov do the right thing in executing his mother’s instructions? Why, after all, does he agree to her plan? Perhaps because:

a) . . . his mother commands him to do it; he obeys her without thinking. (This seems unlikely because he does indeed question his mother  — not about whether tricking his father is the right thing to do, but whether it will work — so he is not blindly obedient.)

b) . . . he knows that his mother has received the prophecy of “rav ya’avod tza’ir,” and he sees that since his father prefers Eisav, he himself will never get his father’s blessing, never become head of the household, and never rule over his brother. So the only way to make sure that the prophecy comes true is to do something dishonest.

c) . . . he has bought the birthright from Eisav, and one of the privileges of the birthright is that the son who has it receives his father’s blessing of riches, along with assuming the leadership of the rest of the family. If so, why does Ya’akov need to trick his father in order to get the berakha? Why not go directly to Yitzhak and tell him straight out that he deserves the berakha because he bought it from Eisav? Well, put yourself in Ya’akov’s place: imagine you have taken advantage of your foolishly impulsive brother and gotten him to agree to a ridiculous deal because you know he looks only at what’s in front of him and doesn’t really plan much for the distant future. How would you feel about going to your dad and telling him about it? “Well, dad, the berakha is really mine because I bought it from Eisav for, uh, well, for some stew.” What would your dad think of you and the deal you made? Ya’akov feels he deserves Eisav’s blessing since he has bought the privileges of firstborn from Eisav, but he cannot simply tell the story of the sale to his father. Yitzhak would be aghast at Ya’akov’s behavior, or worse, he would nullify the deal on the grounds that Ya’akov had taken unfair advantage.

Whatever Ya’akov’s reason for doing it, it is difficult to justify his lying and tricking Yitzhak based on any of the above rationales:

Rationale “a”: [This possibility was questioned as unlikely in its own right, see above.]

Rationale “b”: The Lord can figure out just fine how to make His plan work out, thank you very much! No one has an excuse to break a moral rule in order to take care of Hashem’s plan unless they receive a direct command to do so (as in the case of the Akeida, the near-sacrifice of Yitzhak by Avraham). Rivka is never instructed to lift a finger in order to make sure that “rav ya’avod tza’ir.” When Hashem wants help, He asks for it. Otherwise, no one is above the law.

Rationale “c”: Lying to hide something you’ve done which would embarrass you is a tough one to justify!


The Torah observes without comment or explanation that Yitzhak prefers Eisav over Ya’akov. What is it about Eisav that Yitzhak admires, or which attracts him? What is it that Ya’akov is lacking, that Eisav has? Has Yitzhak been blinded, or has he blinded himself, to Eisav’s faults? Doesn’t he know that his elder son is the kind of person who will trade the birthright for a bowl of soup? How do we understand his preference for Eisav?

Let’s hold these questions for a moment and combine them with the following related questions:

Once Ya’akov has tricked Yitzhak into blessing him with the blessings of the firstborn, and Yitzhak realizes what has happened, he seems very angry with Ya’akov for lying to him and deceiving him. If so, why does he give Ya’akov *another* berakha soon afterward, just before Ya’akov’s flight to Haran?! And even if, for some reason, Yitzhak is not angry, what need is there to give Ya’akov a second berakha, if he has already received one through the deception he has just carried out?

Let’s first look at Yitzhak’s preference for Eisav. The Torah says that Yitzhak prefers Eisav because “tzayyid be-fiv” — “hunting was in his mouth.” Whose mouth is this hunting in? The possibilities:

1) Hunting is in *Yitzhak’s* mouth: he likes Eisav best because Eisav brings him all kinds of exotic game to eat! Of course, this interpretation makes Yitzhak seem pretty superficial. Can food really be so important to Yitzhak that he is ready to pass the leadership role to Eisav because Eisav is the best game-catcher and chef? “My kingdom for some good venison”?

2) Hunting is in *Eisav’s* mouth: Yitzhak likes Eisav because hunting is instinctive for Eisav; it is a part of him. Later on, in Parashat Nitzavim (in Sefer Devarim), we see this word, “be-fiv,” used to mean that something is an integral part of someone’s personality or part of his most basic characteristics. In that context, Moshe is winding down his ‘pep talk’ to Bnei Yisrael, encouraging them to keep the Torah. Lest they despair of their ability to understand and keep the Torah, Moshe urges them to be strong, insisting that “*BE-FIKHA* u-bi-lvavkha la-asoto” — “It is IN YOUR MOUTH and in your heart to do it.” Hunting is in Eisav’s “mouth” as observance of the mitzvot of the Torah is in Bnei Yisrael’s “mouth.”

This second possibility seems intriguing, but how does it explain why Yitzhak prefers Eisav? Let’s look a little further at the evidence about Yitzhak’s admiration for Eisav, reading the section where Yitzhak, feeling death approaching, instructs  Eisav to hunt and prepare food for him. After Eisav presents Yitzhak with this meal, Yitzhak will give Eisav his berakha.

Yitzhak instructs Eisav to “lift your weapons” — “your quiver and arrows” – and to “go out and hunt game,” and prepare the meat for him as he likes it, “so that my sould shall bless you before I die.”

Now, if Yitzhak simply wants a good meal, i.e., if the reason he loves Eisav is because Eisav places hunting “in his mouth” quite literally, he really could have left out many of these elements:

1) “tzayyid” – Yitzhak seems to want specifically something hunted; an animal from the sheep-pen will not do, it seems.

2) “keilekha” — “your weapons” — “telyekha ve-kashtekha” — “your quiver and bow.” Now, Eisav certainly knows how to hunt and which weapons to take. Why does Yitzhak specify that Eisav should take weapons, even specifying *which* weapons?

Does Yitzhak just want a good meal so he can feel thankful to Eisav for filling his belly and then give him the berakha . . . or is there some more substantial reason why he wants Eisav to use his weapons and hunt something in order to qualify for the berakha?

Let us look a bit further, at the scene where Ya’akov is dressed up in Eisav’s clothing. His father asks him to come close, and then Yitzhak smells him to see if he smells like Eisav. When he smells the clothes of Eisav, how does he characterize the smell? “Re’ah beni ke-re’ah SADEH ASHER BERKHO HASHEM” — “The smell of my son is like the smell of the field, which God has blessed.” He smells of the field, the outdoors, which Yitzhak sees as divinely blessed!

What does all this add up to?

Yitzhak seems fascinated by Eisav as a man of trained, channeled aggressive action. He admires Eisav as someone for whom hunting is natural — “be-fiv.” He takes particular pleasure in the weapons Eisav knows how to use, even in the smell of the field, the arena where Eisav is master. Yitzhak doesn’t want just any food, he wants *hunted* food to inspire him to transfer the berakhot to Eisav. Why? What does trained and channeled aggression — hunting skill — have to do with blessings? To answer this, we need to look at the blessings themselves:

“May Hashem give you from the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land, and much grain and wine. Nations shall serve you, and countries bow to you; be master to your brother, and may the sons of your mother bow to you . . . .”

These are berakhot of physical plenty, leadership, and power. Eisav, master of the physical environment, skilled with weapons, trained to wield power, has exactly the leadership skills necessary to receive these berakhot. His trained aggression can be channeled into controlling the power of leadership and will guarantee the safety and survival of the whole family in a hostile environment. Yitzhak has not been fooled about Eisav’s leadership qualities — Eisav really does have them.

Ya’akov, on the other hand, is the “ish tam,” the tent-dweller, who avoids engaging the world and prefers to tend his sheep off by himself. Yitzhak looks at him and knows he may not be able to depend on Ya’akov’s ability to confront the family’s enemies and its challenges. Instead of facing his challenges, he will try to avoid them. Yitzhak is attracted to Eisav and his face-to-face approach to his challenges.

Yitzhak knows that Eisav is a bit impulsive, that he doesn’t always think through his decisions. He knows that Eisav’s strength is also his weakness, that his courage in facing his challenges face-to-face also means that he may find it difficult to face a challenge which is not right in front of his face. Eisav is undone by subtlety, his brother’s specialty. But Yitzhak doesn’t really appreciate the degree of Eisav’s shortsightedness and poor judgment until after he discovers Ya’akov’s theft of Eisav’s blessing. To appreciate this, we need to look at the conversation between Yitzhak and Eisav after Ya’akov has stolen the berakha. Raising his voice bitterly in tearful, anguished complaint, Eisav pauses to curse the subtle Ya’akov: “Is his name indeed ‘Ya’akov’ [literally, ‘heel’ or ‘trickster’]?! He has tricked me [“va-ye-akveini,” a play on “Ya’akov”] now twice — he took my birthright, and now he took my blessings!”

Eisav shoots his mouth off just a little more than he should! Until now, Yitzhak had thought of Eisav as a strong leader, a person of courage who confronts his challenges, if perhaps also a bit hasty, a little impulsive. But now Yitzhak knows about the sale of the bekhora, the sale where Eisav agreed to sell his leadership rights for a bowl of soup when he was hungry! Suddenly, Yitzhak realizes that he has been deeply mistaken about Eisav. No one with real leadership instinct would ever have sold the bekhora, the leadership of the family . . . not for *anything,* and certainly not for a bowl of soup! A person who would do that is a person with little understanding of leadership at all. Suddenly, Yitzhak sees that all the leadership he thought he saw in Eisav was really just aggression; all the courage he saw was really just thoughtless incaution.


This brings us to our next question: Why is Yitzhak, who has just been the victim of Ya’akov’s deception, willing to give Ya’akov *another* berakha at the end of the parasha? And since Ya’akov has already received a berakha from Yitzhak, why does he need another one?

Let’s add another question: we saw that when Eisav shows up and realizes that Ya’akov has stolen his berakha, he becomes distraught. He begs his father to bless him, too; in fact, he begs three times. Yitzhak insists that he has no blessings left, but in the end he gives Eisav a watered-down version of the same berakha he had given to Ya’akov just before. The problem is that Yitzhak does *indeed* have another berakha besides the one he gave to Ya’akov: he still has the berakha which he is going to give to Ya’akov at the end of the parasha. If he has another berakha, why doesn’t he give it to Eisav?

To understand the questions surrounding this last berakha, we have to take a look at the berakha itself:

BERESHIT 28:3-4 —
“May Hashem bless you and increase you . . . you shall become a throng of nations. May He give to you the blessing of Avraham your father, to you and your children with you, that you shall inherit the Land in which you dwell, which Hashem gave to Avraham.”

How does this compare to the berakhot that Yitzhak had given earlier in the parasha?

This latter berakha is the Birkat Avraham, the promise of the holy land and the promise that Ya’akov will become “a throng of nations.” Unlike the berakha meant for Eisav, this is not a berakha of physical wealth or political leadership; this berakha transforms its recipient into the spiritual heir of Avraham, into the one who will inherit the holy land and found the nation which will have a special relationship with Hashem.

It is now clear why Ya’akov gets this berakha even though he has already gotten a berakha — the two blessings are as different as can be! The previous berakha was for physical success and temporal leadership, while this berakha grants spiritual leadership.

But isn’t Yitzhak still angry at Ya’akov for lying and stealing the previous berakha? How can he be willing to bless Ya’akov (especially as a spiritual leader!) after being tricked by him? And why isn’t Yitzhak willing to give this blessing to poor Eisav when Eisav plaintively begs for a blessing? Why does Yitzhak make it seem that he has nothing left to offer to Eisav?

Things are a lot more complex than we thought when we started! We sometimes like to think of characters in the Humash as simple — he’s one of the good guys, he’s one of the bad guys. But in our real lives, the people are not simple at all. No one is all good or all evil. The same is true of the Humash, but some of us have been trained to think of the characters of the Humash in simplistic terms.

At the end of his life, Yitzhak faces the reality that neither of his sons is perfect. Eisav has shown that he doesn’t have much leadership potential, while Ya’akov has shown that he is less than completely honest. But Yitzhak does have to pass spiritual leadership, the Blessing of Avraham, to someone. He doesn’t have any perfect choices: each candidate has serious weaknesses. Ya’akov seems to understand the value of leadership and makes efforts to achieve it, but he has been dishonest. Yitzhak does not know about Eisav’s plan to murder Ya’akov, which is nicely in line with Eisav’s impulsive, judgment-free nature (he’s hungry, he sells the birthright; he’s angry, he murders his opponent), but Yitzhak has seen enough to make him even more uncomfortable with Eisav than he is with Ya’akov. Yitzhak does not know what to do. To whom should he give the spiritual leadership of the future nation? Who should get the final berakha? He doesn’t know, so he delays by giving Eisav a watered-down version of the physical berakha.


But then one other element enters the scene and convinces Yitzhak that Ya’akov is his man. This element is supplied by the crafty Rivka.

She knows that Yitzhak still hasn’t given anyone the Birkat Avraham, the mantle of spiritual leadership. And she wants Ya’akov to get it. So instead of telling Yitzhak that Eisav is a bum and that he is planning to murder Ya’akov, she does a very sly thing: she pretends to be concerned that Ya’akov will marry one of the local Hittite women, who are clearly evil characters in the Torah’s view. (The Hittites are among the Cana’anite nations which the Torah says live lives of abomination and idol worship; they are the people from whom Avraham insisted that a wife not be taken for Yitzhak. In other words, they stand for everything immoral and evil that the morality and monotheism of the Torah come to challenge.) Now, let us remember — who is it who has already married *two* of these Hittite women? Eisav, of course! And remember that Yitzhak and Rivka, the Torah says, found these women “a bitterness of spirit.”

What Rivka is really doing at this crucial moment by accenting her fear that Ya’akov might take a Hittite wife is subtly reminding Yitzhak that his favorite son Eisav is not worthy of spiritual leadership at all. He has married women from a culture which will in time reach such depths of evil that Hashem will consider it nation worthy of destruction at the hands of the Bnei Yisrael as they emerge from Egypt and conquer Israel. This son is simply not an option as a spiritual leader; his marital choices have already spoken volumes for his future as a spiritual leader. In this context, the only choice left is Ya’akov. On the one hand, he has not done much to show that he can be a spiritual leader. And he has been dishonest. But Yitzhak has no better choice, so he chooses Ya’akov.

We will see as we follow Ya’akov through his development that Yitzhak was right. As Ya’akov grows, he proves himself worthy of the spiritual blessings.

[It is also worth noticing that Eisav suddenly wakes up at this point and sees that Ya’akov has been commanded not to marry a native (Cana’anite) woman, and that Ya’akov has therefore received the birkat Avraham. It is too late for him, but Eisav still tries to show he is worthy by taking one of Yishmael’s daughters (i.e., a non-Cana’anite woman) as a wife!]

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Chayyei Sarah: Understanding Middle-Eastern Negotiations


The names of most parshiot usually tell us very little about the content of the parasha. This week’s parasha raises this tendency to new heights: not only is the parasha not about the “Life of Sara,” it is in fact all about the death, burial, and replacement of Sara (in several different ways).

The parasha tells at great length of the search for a mate for Yitzchak, in fact telling the story twice, once from the perspective of the omniscient narrator and once in the words of Avraham’s servant as he describes his adventures to Rivka’s family. However, since this part of the parasha usually gets lots of play in divrei Torah and parasha analyses, and I am a parasha-contrarian, we will be taking a close look at a different, more neglected story in the parasha: the story of Avraham’s acquisition of a grave for Sara — the Cave of Mahpela in Hevron.


1. The story of the purchase is told in excruciating detail. Read through the text slowly and carefully, unpacking every line. Imagine you are Avraham, telling your family or a few friends over the dinner table this story of a real estate purchase, and you’ll see what I mean. Why is there so much detail? What is the message? And why is the whole story important enough to appear in the Torah?

2. The two parties to the conversation — Avraham and the Hittites — seem to be having trouble communicating, as each one repeatedly claims that the other side is not really listening. Why won’t either side accept the kind generosity of the other side? Why are both sides trying to out-nice each other?

3. What other features of this section strike you as strange, and how do you account for them?


This week’s parasha begins with the death of Sara. It is characteristic of Jewish tradition to turn death into life, to call this parasha “The Life of Sara” rather than “The Death of Sara.” Jewish tradition often refers to sad or evil things by their opposites:

1) When the Talmud and Midrash talk about sinful Jews, they often use the term, “The ENEMIES of Israel.” We don’t ever want to refer explicitly to our own people as sinful.

2) When the Talmud discusses the laws of one who curses God, the Gemara refers to the act of cursing God by its opposite: instead of calling it “cursing God,” the Gemara refers to this evil act as “BLESSING God.” Cursing God is something so terrible that we don’t even want to refer to it as such, so we call it by its opposite.

3) When the Talmud refers to someone who is blind, it often uses the term, “One who has plenty of light.” Of course, a blind person has no “light” at all, but instead of accenting the disability, the Gemara expresses the same thing by its opposite.


Sara has dies; Avraham, seeking a grave in which to bury her, negotiates with the Bnei Het (Hittites) for a site. As you read the section, note the tremendous emphasis on the auditory — hearing and listening:

BERESHIT 23:2-20 —
Sara died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron, in the Land of Cana’an. Avraham came to mourn for Sara and cry over her.

Avraham rose from before his dead and spoke to the children of Het, saying, “I am a stranger and temporary dweller among you; give me a holding of a grave [‘ahuzat kever’] among you, and I will bury my dead from before me.”

The children of Het answered Avraham, saying to him: “LISTEN TO US, master: you are a prince of God among us! Bury your dead in the choicest of our graves! Not one of us will withhold his grave from you, for you to bury your dead.”

Avraham rose and bowed to the people of the land, the children of Het. He spoke with them, saying, “If you really wish to [assist me in] bury[ing] my dead from before me, LISTEN TO ME, and let me meet with Efron, son of Tzohar; let him give to me the Cave of Mahpela which is his, which is at the end of his field; let him give it to me for full payment among you, as a holding of a grave [‘ahuzat kever’].”

Efron lived among the children of Het. Efron the Hiti answered Avraham IN THE HEARING of the children of Het, before all of the people in the gate of the city, saying, “No, master, LISTEN TO ME — the field, I have given it to you, and the cave in it, to you I have given it! In the sight of the children of my nation I have given it to you; bury your dead!”

Avraham bowed to the people of the land. He spoke to Efron IN THE HEARING of the people of the land, saying, “But if you would only LISTEN TO ME, I have given the payment for the field — take it from me, and I will bury my dead there.”

Efron answered Avraham, saying to him, “Master, LISTEN TO ME — what is a land of four hundred shekels of silver between me and you? Bury your dead!”

Avraham LISTENED to Efron, and Avraham weighed for Efron the money he had spoken of IN THE HEARING of the children of Het — four hundred shekels of silver, acceptable to a merchant. The field of Efron, which was in Mahpela, before Mamre — the field, and the cave in it, and all the trees of the field, in all its perimeter around — arose to Avraham as a purchase, in sight of the children of Het, with all the people in the gate of the city. After this, Avraham buried Sara, his wife, in the cave of the field of Mahpela, before Mamre, which is Hevron, in the Land of Cana’an. The field and the cave in it arose to Avraham as a holding of a grave [‘ahuzat kaver’], from the children of Het.

As usual, a significant word or phrase should jump out at us: “LISTEN TO ME” [“shema’eini”]. Except for the first time Avraham speaks, this word appears in *every* other instance in which someone speaks: pesukim (verses) 6, 8, 11, 12, 15, and 16. The Bnei Het say, “If you would only listen to us . . .”; Avraham responds by arguing his position and saying, “If you would only listen to me . . .”, and so on.

When people are not just arguing, but keep insisting “If you would only listen to me!”, it is clear that the parties are firm in their positions and unwilling to give in. “If you would only listen to me” means “Your proposal is unacceptable.” If it’s true that the two sides really are firm in their positions, what are their positions? What is the disagreement about in these negotiations? From a simple reading of the text, it appears that there is no disagreement at all! Avraham wants a place to bury Sara, and the Bnei Het generously offer him a place! Perhaps there is some disagreement over the money: Avraham wants to pay for a grave, while the Bnei Het want to give him one for free. But this only begs the question: why indeed does Avraham insist on paying for the grave? For now, let us hold this question.


The next point of disagreement is less obvious than the disagreement about the money: Avraham apparently wants one type of grave, but the Bnei Het subtly refuse and offer only a different type of grave: Avraham repeatedly requests an “AHUZAT kever,” “a HOLDING of a grave,” while the Bnei Het offer only a “kever.” Avraham, it seems, wants his *own* burial ground, a permanent possession — a “*holding* of a grave,” an “ahuza”– but the Bnei Het instead offer him only a *space* within one of their own burial grounds: “Bury your dead in the choicest of *our* graves.” Their generous offer of a space withing their own burial grounds is actually a refusal of Avraham’s request to acquire his own private burial ground. Avraham responds by insisting on an “ahuzat kaver”; he is not interested in a space in one of the Hittite gravesites.

This leads us to the next disagreement: what does Avraham say he wants to buy from Efron, and what does Efron want to give him? In pasuk 9, Avraham states clearly that he wants the cave at the edge of the field. But in pasuk 11, Efron says he will give him the cave *and* the field! In pasuk 13, Avraham ‘gives in’ on this point and agrees to take the cave along with the field. And in pasuk 16, Avraham seems to capitulate again: the “If you would only listen to me!” pattern ends with an apparent victory by Efron, as instead of another “Would you listen to me!”, we hear that “Avraham listened to Efron.” In this great struggle to be “heard,” Avraham has apparently accepted Efron’s terms — Efron has been “heard,” Avraham has capitulated.

To summarize, 3 different issues seem to divide Avraham and the Bnei Het:

1) Whether Avraham will acquire a gravesite through sale or as a gift.

2) Whether Avraham will receive an independent, permanent family burial place (an “ahuza”), or only a place within one of the gravesites of the Bnei Het.

3) Whether Avraham will receive the cave only (as he proposes), or the cave and the field next to it (as Efron proposes).


What is Avraham really after? Why is it so important to him to get a private gravesite for Sara? Why doesn’t he accept the generosity of the Bnei Het when they offer him a grave for Sara among their best graves? And why does he so stubbornly insist on paying for the grave? Why not accept a free grave?

Let’s look at one more interesting feature of the text. One way in which the Torah clues us in to subtleties is the way it refers to different people. With whom is Avraham negotiating? The Torah refers to Avraham’s interlocutors using three different names:

1) “Bnei Het”: Pasuk 3 refers to them as the “Bnei Het,” the “Children of Het”: this is who they are in the simple sense, and this is how they are referred to throughout this section.

2) “Am Ha-Aretz”: Pesukim 7, 12, and 13 refer to Avraham’s interlocutors as the “am ha-aretz,” the “people of the land.” Notice that this phrase is *always* used just before Avraham speaks, not when *they* themselves speak! This hints to us that the reason they are called “am ha-aretz” is because Avraham in particular relates to them as the “people of the land”; he sees them as the “am ha-aretz” because that’s exactly what he wants from them — land!

3) “Those within the gates of the city”: Pesukim 10 and 18 refer to the crowd of Hittite observers as “all those within the gate of the city” [i.e., everyone in town]. This description of the Bnei Het emphasizes that the whole deal takes place publicly, in front of the entire crowd of Bnei Het who live in Hevron. We will soon see why this is important.


Now let’s look at the end of the sale. What is the order of events?

1) Avraham pays the money.
2) The field, cave, and trees (!) become his.
3) Avraham buries Sara.
4) The Torah tells us again that the field and the cave become Avraham’s.

The Torah tells us twice that field and the cave become Avraham’s. But this is not exactly a repetition: the first time the Torah tells us about Avraham’s acquisition, it refers to the field and cave as a “mikna,” a purchase; the second time, after Avraham has buried his wife there, the Torah calls the field and cave an “ahuza,” a permanent holding. Apparently, the field and cave become Avraham’s “purchase” as soon as he pays the money, but they become an “ahuza,” a permanent holding, only once he has buried Sara. In other words, he has taken possession of the field in two different ways: 1) first by buying it with money and 2) then by actually establishing physical occupancy of the land by burying Sara there.


Let us now take the evidence and put it together:

* We know that Avraham wants an “ahuzat kaver,” a permanent burial ground, not just a space in someone else’s burial ground.

* We know that he wants to pay for it and will not accept it as a gift.

* We know he views the Bnei Het as the “am ha-aretz,” “the people of the land,” from whom he wants land.

* We know that the Torah stresses that this event takes place publicly and is witnessed by everyone present.

* We know that Avraham performs two different “kinyanim” (acquisition procedures), by both paying for the property and also occupying it. Each of these procedures yields a different status of ownership — one of title, one of occupancy.

What does all this add up to? What is Avraham really after in these negotiations?

Avraham wants a piece of Eretz Yisrael, an “ahuza,” a permanent piece of land which he will pass down to his descendants.

We saw in Parashat Lekh Lekha that Avraham misunderstands Hashem’s promise that he will inherit the land: Avraham understands that he himself will take possession of the land, and therefore questions Hashem’s promise when time passes and the land has not become his. But Hashem tells him that he has misunderstood: Avraham himself will not take ownership of the land — his descendants will, and only after they have emerged from enslavement in Egypt (and only once the current inhabitants of the land have descended to a state of evil which justifies their destruction.) This is part of the message of the “berit bein ha-betarim,” the “covenant between the split pieces.” Avraham understands this and accepts it — but he still desperately wants a foothold of his own in Eretz Yisrael.

Avraham knows that the people of the land — the “am ha-aretz” — will never sell land to him if he simply visits the local Century 21 real estate office to ask about a homestead. He is an outsider, a foreigner. For the Bnei Het to sell land to him would be to admit him into their society as an equal with permanent membership. Avraham is, so to speak, the first black person to try to move into an upper-class, all-white suburban community. That first black man knows no one will sell him a house if he makes his approach directly, so he approaches indirectly: perhaps he hires a white man to go and buy it for him, and then he moves in with his family.

Avraham’s stratgey is to take advantage of the immediate need for a grave for Sara to grab a permanent foothold in Eretz Yisrael. Avraham lowers himself and behaves humbly, positioning himself as the bereaved husband who needs a favor from powerful neighbors. Paradoxically, Avraham’s is a position of power: the Torah stresses that the entire scene takes place in public, with everyone watching. Most people are capable of refusing to give charity to a poor person who approaches them privately, but to refuse a poor person who comes to you and begs you in front of everyone is just plain embarrassing. Avraham milks his situation for all it’s worth, positioning himself as the powerless one, the rootless stranger who depends upon the kindness of the honorable inhabitants of the land. Every single time he speaks, Avraham mentions that he needs a gravesite in order to bury his wife (in pesukim 4, 8, and 13), driving home the image of a grieving mourner to prevent the Bnei Het from deflecting him as an ambitious member of a minority group eager to move into the neighborhood. He introduces himself (pasuk 4) as a wanderer and a stranger, a person with no status among the natives of the land. He is a “charity case.” He repeatedly bows to the Bnei Het, manipulating the Bnei Het into capitulating by making a show of submission.

The Bnei Het, experienced negotiators, immediately see Avraham’s show of humility for what it is — a threat. The more charity-worthy Avraham appears, the more inappropriate it would be to turn away his request in public. They try to reduce some of his power as a charity case by insisting that he is no rootless, statusless wanderer, he is a “prince of God”! Superficially, the Bnei Het are comforting Avraham, showing respect for him; in truth, they attempt only to undercut his negotiating position. Whenever they address him, they call him “adoni,” “master,” attempting to dislodge Avraham from the position of least stature — and therefore greatest power — in this negotiation. A “prince of God” needs favors from no one.

We can now look again at these negotiations and read them in a new light:

Avraham first positions himself as the underdog, which gives him power. Next, he asks for an “ahuzat kaver,” a permanent grave-possession. The Bnei Het first try to challenge Avraham’s powerful underdog status by insisting that they consider him a “prince of God.” But they know they cannot turn him down flat on his request of a grave for his wife, so instead they become super-generous. They insist that they cannot let someone as important as Avraham pay for a grave. Instead, they offer him a free spot in one of their own family gravesites: “Bury your dead in the choicest of our graves! Not one of us will withhold his grave from you, for you to bury your dead.” This is a compromise for them; they will have to let the “black man” into the neighborhood in some small way, but on the other hand, they much prefer to let him bury his wife in one of their family graves than to sell him a family cemetery of his own, which would give him a permanent connection to the land (and the status which comes with being a landowner).

Indeed, the Bnei Het stress the *action* of burial (“kevor meitekha”) over the owning of a grave; they want to help Avraham bury his wife, not purchase a place to do so. They respond to Avraham’s first request for an ahuzat kever by cleverly demurring: “*Bury* *your* *dead* in the choicest of our graves; not one of us will withhold his grave from you, for you to *bury* *your* *dead*.” Well, we all know a grave is for burying the dead, so when the Bnei Het offer Avraham a grave specifically “to bury your dead,” what they mean is that if he wants a grave in order to bury his wife, they will help him, but if he wants it for some other reason — which he does indeed — they will not deal with him.

Avraham acknowledges the “generosity” of the Bnei Het in pasuk 7 with a bow. But then he pursues a new strategy. The Bnei Het have outsmarted him by appearing to generously offer him one of their own graves; to simply refuse this offer and insist on his own gravesite would appear ungrateful and impolite. So he puts Plan B into action. He will single out an individual among the Bnei Het and embarrass him into selling him a grave.

Clearly, Avraham has done his homework: he has planned for this possibility. He already knows that there is a cave of Mahpela which will serve nicely as a gravesite. He also knows who owns it. He repeats that he wants to pay instead of accepting a gravesite as a gift. When you accept a gift, you are a powerless recipient — you cannot control what is given to you, only choose to accept or not. If Avraham had agreed to accept a gift, when they offered him a free grave among their own graves, to refuse this gift would have seemed ungrateful. So he continues to insist that he wants to pay for it. Also, he wants to establish very clear ownership of this land, as we will see, and a sale is always more powerful than a gift.

Efron, the Hittite singled out by Avraham in Plan B, is a clever negotiator. He offers not just the *cave* which Avraham had requested (“. . . Let me meet with Efron, son of Tzohar; let him give to me the *Cave* of Mahpela which is his, which is at the end of his field”), but also the *field* next to it (“. . . The *field,* I have given it to you, and the cave in it, to you I have given it!”). Efron is trying to get Avraham to back down from the deal by insisting that the deal will include not only the cave, but also the field.

Efron’s tactic recalls a tactic of Boaz in the Book of Ruth: the fields of Naomi need to be redeemed, so Boaz, the local judge/leader, offers the opportunity to redeem the fields to an unnamed relative of hers — “Ploni Almoni.” “Ploni” is quite ready to redeem the fields until Boaz adds that by redeeming the fields, he is also taking Ruth, Naomi’s Moabite daughter-in-law, as a wife! “Ploni,” unwilling to marry a foreign woman and besmirch his lilly-white pedigree, gets cold feet in a hurry and backs down, clearing the way for Boaz himself to redeem the fields and marry Ruth). Even though Efron continues to call the offer a gift, he knows Avraham will not accept it a gift. He throws in the field hoping that Avraham will decide that it’s too expensive to buy both the field and the cave.

Avraham calls Efron’s bluff and accepts the deal: “I have given the payment for the *field.*” Efron responds by carrying on with the myth that it is all a gift — “Master, listen to me,  what is a land of *four* *hundred* *shekels* of silver between me and you?” — but what he is really doing is naming the price of the field and the cave. This is his final effort to dissuade Avraham: making the field and cave so expensive that Avraham will back down.


Until now, this negotiation has been filled with people telling each other “Shema’eini” — “Listen to me!” Each party rejects the other’s proposal, asserting his own in its place. But finally, in response to Efron’s final disuasive effort, the Torah tells us, “Va-yishma Avraham,” that “Avraham listened.” It seems that Avraham has given in; he “listens” to Efron. Here we have a double irony: on the surface, Efron has lost — he wanted to give the field for free, and Avraham insists on paying and gets his way. The irony is that in truth, Efron has won, because he will be paid a lot of money for the field he said he would give for free. But on the most fundamental level, Efron loses the most important struggle, as Avraham calls his bluff once again and comes up with the money without a second’s hesitation. Efron underestimates the importance of Eretz Yisrael to Avraham, and this mistake costs him victory in this polite struggle.

A PLACE TO ** L I V E **:

The Torah goes on to tell us that “the cave, the field, and all the trees in it” become Avraham’s. If this whole story were really about buying a grave, it would make no sense to mention the trees, and even the field would be besides the point. But if Avraham’s real goal was to gain a permanent personal foothold in the land in which his children would live with their God, then we can understand that the *grave* is what is besides the point, but the field, and the living  trees in it are completely the point! Indeed, the Torah later confirms that Avraham and Yitzhak do live in Hevron:

BERESHIT 35:27 —
Ya’akov came to Yitzhak, his father, to Mamre, Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron, where Avraham and Yitzchak [had] lived.

Eretz Yisrael is important to Avraham as a place to live, not a place to be taken in a pine box in the cargo bay of an El-Al 747 once he is dead and needs a place to be buried. He sees Eretz Yisrael as a place to live, not a place to be dead. And he wants a piece of it.

The Torah then tells us that he buries Sara in the cave. And then it tells us again that the field and the cave become his, as burying Sara is another form of acquisition of the land. Now Avraham is not just the owner in a legal sense, he has also occupied the land, permanently, through the grave he has established there.

These are the two senses in which we are connected to Eretz Yisrael — in the living, active, making-Aliyah-raising-children-there sense, and, when we cannot hold onto the land for one reason or another, then it remains our “ahuzat kaver” — the place where the dead of so many of our generations are buried. In a fundamental (and quite literal) sense, we always occupy the land. We always return to it to bury the next generation, or, when Hashem smiles at us, to return to establish a state, to live in its fields with its trees, and not just in its burial caves.

BERESHIT 25:8-10 —
Avraham expired and died at a good old age, old and satisfied, and was gathered to his people. Yitzhak and Yishmael, his sons, buried him in the cave of Mahpela, in the **FIELD** of Efron, son of Tzohar the Hiti, which is before Mamre. [In] the **FIELD** which Avraham bought from the children of Het — there were buried Avraham and Sara, his wife.

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Va-Yera: The Akeidah



Our questions this week:

1. Why does the Torah spend so much space telling us about Lot, Avraham’s nephew? We hear that Lot accompanies Avraham on the journey from Ur to Haran to Cana’an; that Lot chooses to move to Sedom and its environs to find grazing space for his growing flocks; that he is captured in a war and saved by Avraham; that angels come to warn him of Sedom’s destruction; that he seeks refuge in various places and is tricked by his own daughters into sleeping with them. What are we meant to learn from Lot and his misadventures?

2. “Sacrifice your only son, the one you love,” says Hashem, and Avraham obeys with silent alacrity. To appreciate the Akeida (Binding of Isaac), we need to understand Avraham’s mentality in facing it: the substance of the test, after all, was whether he would be able to overcome his feelings. Since the Torah tells us nothing about Avraham’s emotions throughout the ordeal, we must look for hints wherever the Torah drops them. How do the literary features of the way the story is told accent the difficulty of the test?

3. Believe it or not, since long before commanding Avraham to sacrifice his son, Hashem has been working hard to make this test even *harder*. What does Hashem do to make the test harder? Look for evidence both within Parashat VaYera and in the previous parasha.

4. What does the test of the Akeida show about  Avraham, and what should we learn from it?



As the curtain rises on our parasha, angels appear to Avraham. He rushes to welcome them, feed them, and offer them shelter and comfort. After reporting Avraham’s conversation with the angel-visitors, the Torah moves on to the story of the destruction of Sedom and how Lot, Avraham’s nephew, is saved. Clearly, the figure of Lot is set up for comparison to Avraham: the same angels who enjoyed Avraham’s gracious welcome now visit Lot to tell him he should leave Sedom before Hashem destroys it. Just like Uncle Avraham, Lot eagerly welcomes the guests into his home, even using language similar to Avraham’s. But these similarities only accent the deep differences between Avraham and Lot which quickly become apparent.


Lot has learned from Avraham that welcoming guests is a good thing to do, so he eagerly welcomes the angels. But when his evil Sedomite neighbors surround his house and demand that he send out his guests so they can abuse (and perhaps rape) them, Lot says something so ridiculous that it would be funny if it weren’t so disgusting: “Now, look, you don’t want to do anything evil! [Al na, ahai, ta-re’u!] These are my guests, and I must guarantee their safety. Instead, I will send out my two daughters — both virgins! — and you can do with them whatever you like.” Like Avraham, Lot feels responsible for the welfare of his guests; like Avraham, Lot is willing to sacrifice even his children for an important purpose. But while Avraham is willing to sacrifice his son only in response to a direct and excruciatingly specific divine command (“Take your son, your only one, the one you love — Yitzhak”), Lot is a volunteer, offering his daughters for sacrifice in place of his guests. This, he suggests to the crowd of louts surrounding his house, is a good way to avoid “doing evil”!


As promised, Hashem destroys the city of Sedom, and Lot and his daughters eventually seek refuge in the mountains. Witnessing the destruction of their city and its environs, Lot’s daughters apparently believe that their father is the last man left on Earth and conclude that in order to perpetuate humanity, they must conceive by him. Anticipating his resistance, they get him drunk, seduce him, and bear children by him. This is a classic pattern of mida ke-neged mida (measure for measure): Lot offers up his daughters to be raped by the crowd; in retribution, his daughters ‘rape’ him (See also Midrash Tanhuma, VaYera 12). Just as Lot justified the rape of his daughters as a means of doing good (protecting his guests), so do his daughters justify ‘raping’ him as a means of doing good (propagating humanity).

What can we learn from Lot? Is he just a biblical clown, here just for our comic relief and occasional horror, or maybe just to throw Avraham’s virtues into sharp relief?

Although very enthusiastic about copying behavior he has seen modeled by a good person, Lot is deaf to the values spoken by his actions. Either he has never understood the values which motivate Avraham’s virtuous actions, and so he never arrives at a proper balance of those values, or his living in Sedom has corrupted his values, leaving him with only the memory of Avraham’s virtuous behavior but without the proper hierarchy of values to guide that behavior. Action not motivated by sensitivity to the values underlying it can easily pervert those underlying values and accomplish great evil in trying to ape good behavior. Lot, for example, can offer his daughters for rape in place of his guests. Lot’s acts of hesed express his values to the same degree that a parrot’s jabberings express its thoughts: neither a parrot’s gracious “Hello” nor the ensuing stream of verbal filth express its thoughts, since all the parrot can do is imitate. In the same way, we are impressed by Lot’s kindness in welcoming the guests, but when we stay to hear the end, it’s clear that he has no real understanding of hesed. He can only imitate the behavior of a good person. But doing good is not just a particular behavior or pleasant habit, it is the expression of internalized and well-balanced values.

Lot is not simply a scoundrel: his intentions are noble, as he offers his daughters in order to protect the visitors who have taken shelter with him, not simply out of cruelty. But his act is grotesque and horrifying *especially* because he performs it in the same breath as his heroic defense of his guests, and in service of that heroic defense.


Since long before commanding Avraham to sacrifice his son, Hashem has been hard at work making the upcoming test even harder.


We start in Perek (chapter) 17. Last week, we spent some time on this section developing the idea that the Berit Mila is the eternal, national, historical covenant with Hashem, a covenant which all generations of Jews make with Hashem throughout history. Hashem changes Avraham’s name from “Avram” to “Avraham” to symbolize his new status as an “av hamon goyyim,” a founder of many nations, referring to the 12 quasi-nations which will be the tribes of Israel. What we did not look at last week is the second half of that section, where Hashem changes Sara’s name from “Sarai” to “Sara” and tells Avraham of another promise. I left this section for this week because it works with our theme:

BERESHIT 17:15-21 —
Hashem said to Avraham, “Sarai, your wife — do not call her ‘Sarai,’ for ‘Sara’ is her name. I shall bless her and give you a son from her; I shall bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Avraham fell on his face, laughed, and said in his heart, “Can a child be born to someone a hundred years old? And as for Sara, can a woman ninety years old give birth?”

Avraham said to Hashem, “Would that Yishmael could live before You!”

Hashem said, “Nonetheless, your wife, Sara, will bear a son to you, and you shall call him ‘Yitzhak.’ I shall keep my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his children after him. As for Yishmael, I have heard you; I have blessed him, and multiplied him, increased him very greatly — he shall bear twelve princes, and I shall make him into a great nation. But My covenant I shall keep with Yitzhak, whom Sara will bear to you at this time next year.”

When Avraham hears that he will have a son with Sara, he has two reactions:

1) He laughs at the improbability of people of his and Sara’s age successfully producing a child.

2) He wonders why it is necessary to have another child to succeed him. What is wrong with Yishmael?

Hashem responds very subtly to Avraham’s doubt; Avraham does not explicitly voice a doubt, so Hashem does not explicitly voice a response. But Avraham knows Hashem knows that he laughed in disbelief at the promise. Hashem responds to the laugh with equal subtlety, by instructing Avraham to name the child “Yitzhak” — “He shall laugh.” Hashem is saying, “I know you laughed inside”; He is telling Avraham that he must strengthen his faith, that He is aware that his faith is not yet perfect.

Hashem responds to the second issue — the Yishmael query — by repeating that Yishmael cannot do the job. The covenant just concluded with Avraham — the Berit Mila covenant, whose focus was that Hashem would be the God of Avraham’s descendants and that He would give them the Land of Cana’an forever — would be fufilled not through Yishmael, but through Yitzhak. Everything Avraham has been promised will be channeled to Yitzhak. Hashem responds to Avraham’s love for Yishmael by also giving him a blessing, but the special relationship with Hashem and with the Land is reserved for Yitzhak. Hashem firmly plants the idea in Avraham’s mind that his successor will be Yitzhak.


We now move on to Perek 18, the beginning of our parasha, which reports the conversation between Avraham and his three visitors, the angels who have come to deliver a message to him:

BERESHIT 18:10-14 —
He [the angel-visitor] said, “I shall return to you next year, and Sara, your wife, shall have a son.”

Sara was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him. Avraham and Sara were old, coming along in years; Sara no longer had the way of women. Sara laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am worn out, I will become young again?! And my husband is also old!”

Hashem said to Avraham, “Why did Sara laugh, saying, ‘Can I really bear a child? I am old!’ Is anything beyond Hashem?! At the appointed time, I shall return to you in a year, and Sara shall have a son!”

Sara seems to react the same way Avraham did when he heard he would have a son. She laughs, as Avraham did, wondering how people as old as she and Avraham can have a child. [She does not ask that Yishmael succeed Avraham because Hagar and Yishmael are rivals to her and Yitzhak.] Hashem reacts explosively to Sara’s doubt and makes crystal clear to her husband that the promise that she will have a child is a firm one.

This conversation with Avraham accomplishes two things: one, it communicates to Sara and to Avraham that Hashem will no longer be as patient as before with their doubts of His promises, and two, it reinforces in Avraham the promise that he will have a son with Sara. The fact that Hashem specifically sends messengers to repeat this promise, which He had already made before, and the fact that a date is set for this event, communicate to Avraham that the birth of this child is an event of paramount significance. Hashem takes great pains to clear up any doubts that might remain about Yitzhak’s birth. The result is a tremendous buildup of expectation as the time approaches.


Perek 21 tells the story of the birth of Yitzhak and its aftermath:

BERESHIT 21:1-12 —
Hashem remembered Sara as He had said, and He did to her as He had said. She conceived and bore TO AVRAHAM a son for HIS old age, at the time Hashem had told HIM. Avraham called HIS son, who was born TO HIM, whom Sara bore TO HIM, ‘Yitzchak.’ Avraham circumcised Yitzchak at eight days old, as Hashem had commanded him. Avraham was 100 years old when Yitzchak, HIS SON, was born TO HIM . . . .

Sara saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian (whom she had borne TO AVRAHAM) laughing. She [Sara] said to Avraham, “Throw out this maidservant and her son, for he shall not inherit with my son, with Yitzchak!” This was very evil in the eyes of Avraham, on account of his son. Hashem said to Avraham, “Let it not be evil in your eyes on account of the young man and your maidservant. Whatever Sara tells you to do, obey her, for through Yitzchak shall be called your descendants.”

The Torah emphasizes over and over that Yitzhak is “born to Avraham.” Pasuk 3 alone tells us three times in different ways that Yitzhak is born “to Avraham.” Why the emphasis?

And what is Yishmael laughing at? And why does this annoy Sara so much? And what does inheriting Avraham have to do with this whole issue? Shouldn’t Sara just ask Avraham to throw out Hagar and Yishmael, without mentioning the inheritance?

We have already seen the word “me-tzahek,” “laughing,” fairly recently. Both Avraham and Sara laugh in disbelief when told that they will have a child together. Perhaps Yishmael’s “tzehok” is about the same thing — Avraham and Sara’s having a child in their old age. But if so, why is Sara angry at Yishmael for not believing the same promise she herself couldn’t believe a few months before?

The difference is clear: Sara had trouble believing it when Hashem told her about it. But she was simply indulging a human frailty, having trouble believing something she thinks is simply impossible. Perhaps it is particularly hard for her to believe the promise because she wants so badly for it to be true! (This is a pattern we also see in the Haftara — Melakhim II 4. Elisha the Prophet used to stop at a certain couple’s house and sleep there sometimes. After awhile, Elisha felt a sense of great gratitude to the couple, so he asked his hostess what he could do for her in return. She tried to refuse any favors from him, but eventually he realized that she had no children and promised her a child. She reacted the same way Sara does, in a way: She said, ‘Do not, master, man of Hashem, do not lie to your maidservant!” She thought he was promising her a child only because he knew she desperately wanted one, but she didn’t think he could deliver. So she told him not to lie to her — she wanted children too badly to be disappointed, so she refused to believe the promise.)

But Yishmael’s laughter echoes at a different emotional pitch than Sara’s; it sounds a decidedly smirking tone. Yishmael, too, does not believe that Avraham and Sara are capable of having a child together. When Sara *does* bear a child, he can no longer deny that she is capable of having a child, but he can certainly still deny that *Avraham* is capable at this age. He smirks at Sara to tell her he’s tickled by the suspicion that maybe she slept with someone else and that the son she has just borne is not Avraham’s. This is why the Torah emphasizes so many times that Yitzhak really is Avraham’s son, that Yishmael’s evil suspicion is groundless!

Imagine Sara’s frustration and fury with this mother-son pair, Hagar and Yishmael. Long ago, when Sara realized she could not have children and gave Hagar to Avraham as a wife, Hagar became pregnant and began to lord it over Sara. The same group of people who laughed at Sara before because she **couldn’t** have children, are still laughing at her even now that she **has** had children. No matter what she does, she can’t escape their laughter. She demands that Avraham get rid of them.

It now also makes sense why Sara focuses on the issue of the inheritance. She is responding directly to Yishmael’s claim: Yishmael is hinting that Yitzhak is illegitimate, that he is not Avraham’s son and does not deserve to inherit Avraham. Sara is responding that he’s got it all wrong: not only is Yitzhak legitimate, and not only will he inherit Avraham, but he, Yishmael, is illegitimate, and will NOT inherit along with Yitzhak. Sara is not claiming that Yishmael is illegitimate in the physical sense — she admits that he is Avraham’s son — but spiritually, as Avraham’s successor in his religious mission, he is illegitimate. In these terms, he can never be Avraham’s heir.

This story demonstrates how important Hashem considers the interpersonal in choosing who will be the people with whom He will have a relationship. The crimes of Hagar and Yishmael are not against Hashem, they are against other people. People who can laugh triumphantly at a barren woman desperate for children, who can titter maliciously at that same woman once she has had children, are rejected not only by Sara, who demands their ouster, but also by Hashem, who supports Sara’s demand.

The last pasuk above summarizes this section for our purposes: “For in Yitzchak will be called your descendants.” Avraham is assured that his successor, the one who is officially called his offspring, the one born “to him,” is Yitzhak. Yitzhak becomes the repository of all the hopes Avraham has for the future of his descendants’ relationship with Hashem; all of the promises he has been assured of, he expects to see fulfilled in Yitzhak.


We now move to the Akeida itself:

BERESHIT 22:1-18 —
It happened, after these events, that Hashem tested Avraham. He said to him, “Avraham!” He said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take YOUR SON, your ONLY ONE, whom you LOVE — Yitzchak — and go to the land of Moriyya, and offer him up there as an offering on one of the mountains which I will show you.”

Avraham awoke early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took his two young servants with him, with Yitzchak, HIS SON. He strapped on firewood and got up and went to the place Hashem had told him.

On the third day, Avraham looked up and saw the place from afar. Avraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. I and the young one will go until there, bow down, and return to you.” Avraham took the firewood and put it on Yitzchak, HIS SON, and took in his hand the fire and the knife, and they went TOGETHER.

Yitzchak said to Avraham, HIS FATHER; he said, “FATHER?” He said, “I am here, MY SON.” He said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the offering?” Avraham said, “Hashem will show for Himself the sheep for the offering, MY SON,” and they went on TOGETHER. They came to the place Hashem had told to Avraham, and Avraham built the altar there, set up the wood, and tied up Yitzchak, HIS SON, and put him onto the altar, above the wood. He put forward his hand and took the knife to slaughter HIS SON. An angel of Hashem called to him from the sky and said, “Avraham, Avraham!” He said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not send your hand against the young man! Do not do anything to him! For now I know that you fear Hashem, since you have not withheld YOUR SON, your ONLY ONE, from me” . . . . The angel of Hashem called to Avraham a second time from the sky. He said, “‘I swear by Myself,’ says Hashem, ‘that since you have done this thing, and not saved YOUR SON, your ONLY ONE, I shall bless you and increase your descendants like the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore; your children shall inherit the gates of their enemies. All of the nations of the land shall be blessed through your children, since you have obeyed Me.'”

The Akeida presents several challenges at once:

1) It is immoral to kill. This test is therefore particularly painful for Avraham, so merciful and just a person that he pleaded with Hashem to save the people of Sedom for the sake of the few possible righteous aming them, even though most of them *did* deserve death.

2) Hashem has made it very clear to Avraham that Yitzhak will succeed him. Hashem does not explain here what has happened to that promise, but it certainly occurs to Avraham, as Hashem means for it to.

3) How can a man kill his own son?

Until now, most of what we have seen in the texts sets up Avraham for the philosophical difficulty of the Akeida: Hashem promises repeatedly that Yitzhak will succeed Avraham, and now He appears to renege. But within the parasha of the Akeida itself, the focus of the difficulty is much different — it is entirely emotional.

  What is the lesson of the Akeida? What was right about what Avraham did, and what should we learn from it? What do we learn from the fact that he was prepared to sacrifice his own son, whom he loved, and whom the story refers to with language emphasizing the relationship between father and son?

What do we learn from the fact that Avraham was prepared to sacrifice Yitzhak without questioning what had happened to all of the promises he had received? Last week, we saw that Avraham *does* question Hashem’s promises of land and children; in response, Hashem reassures him. Why doesn’t Avraham question Hashem this time?

Morally, how could Avraham be willing to commit this act? How could the same person who pleaded for justice in the case of Sedom — despite Hashem’s judgment that the city deserved destruction — intentionally murder his own child? How could Avraham, who understands hesed so well, bring himself to an act of such cruelty?

I believe that the answer to these questions is that Avraham went to the Akeida with his entire being screaming out against it. But he pit his love for Yitzhak against his commitment to Hashem — and chose Hashem. This was what Hashem wanted him to do.

Avraham didn’t have a good answer to how it was moral to kill his innocent son. But once Hashem commanded it, that question became moot. He assumed that there must be a moral perspective from which this act was justified, even if he couldn’t understand it. He trusted Hashem’s morality more than his own.

Avraham didn’t have a good answer to what had happened to the promise that Yitzhak would succeed him. He pit his knowledge of Hashem’s promises about Yitzhak against the command to kill him — and decided it was none of his business what would happen with the promises. Once it was clear to him that Hashem did not want him to protest, that He did not want a debate as He did in the case of Sedom, he accepted the command without further explanation.

But how did Avraham know Hashem didn’t want him to protest? Maybe Avraham really failed the test — perhaps the real test was whether he would blindly commit an immoral act, failing the test by sacrificing his son, or stand his moral ground and pass the test by refusing to murder Yitzhak! (Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has suggested this a number of times.)

In order to understand how Avraham knew not to debate with Hashem about killing his son, we must take a step back to Sedom. How did Avraham know that in that case, he was indeed expected to protest, bargaining for the salvation of the damned cities? Avraham took his cue from the relevance — or lack thereof — of Hashem’s revelation. Hashem appears to Avraham one day and says, “Guess what, Avraham, I’ve decided to do away with Sedom.” Avraham says to himself, “Why is He telling me this?” and immediately realizes that since there is no particular reason for Hashem to have told him of Sedom’s fate Hashem is hinting to him that He wants Avraham to engage Him in debate. He wants Avraham to challenge Him.

In the same way, later on in the Torah, we find that Moshe often challenges Hashem: Hashem, infuriated by some Israelite act of disobedience or outright rebellion, turns to Moshe on several occasions and says, “Stand aside and let Me blast them to smithereens!” This is Moshe’s cue to stand directly in the way at all costs and prevent Hashem from destroying the people. Moshe asks himself the same question Avraham asks himself: “Why does He need to tell *me* this?” He concludes that Hashem does not really need him to stand aside in order to pulverize the people; he understands that what Hashem is hinting is that He wants him to intercede, to beg for mercy, to resist the decree.

When Hashem commands Avraham to kill his son, however, Avraham has no choice but to take Hashem’s words at face value, since he cannot ask himself, “Why is Hashem telling me this” — for the answer is obvious: Hashem is telling him to offer his son because He wants Avraham to do it. [This is a very subtle point, so if you’d like to discuss it drop me a line!] If Hashem seems to be telling you something for no reason, or asking you to do something for Him which is transparently unnecessary (like moving out of the way so He can punish Bnei Yisrael, when it’s clear He can punish them without your moving at all), you know He’s hinting something else. But when He delivers a simple command to be obeyed, like a request for a particular sacrifice, the command must be understood and obeyed as voiced.

The lessons of the Akeida are difficult lessons to learn. Some Jews have a very strong commitment to Hashem, sometimes to the detriment of a strong commitment to other people; they have learned the lessons of the Akeida perhaps a bit too well. But others still need to learn the lessons of the Akeida, lessons of absolute commitment to Hashem. A Jew is not only a moral interpersonal agent, he or she is a being dedicated first to the service of Hashem.

Shabbat shalom

Parshat Lech Lecha: Trust in Training


Creating humanity was Hashem’s experiment: could a limited being, the human, reflect the divine (“tzelem Elokim”)? By the end of Parashat Bereishit, Hashem has decided that the answer is no: just before He brings the Flood to wipe out life on Earth, Hashem concludes (sadly) that humanity is basically evil. Even after the Flood, when only the righteous Noah is left, Hashem maintains the same belief in humanity’s basic evil inclination, despite having destroyed those humans whose evil behavior led to the Flood. But there is a critical difference between how Hashem characterizes humanity before and after the Flood; before the Flood, Hashem says, “All of the inclinations of the thoughts of Man’s heart are PURELY evil ALL DAY”; after the Flood, He says, “The inclinations of the heart of Man are evil FROM HIS YOUTH.” What is Hashem really “thinking”?


Over the course of Parashat Noah, Hashem dramatically lowers His expectations of humanity: before the Flood, He had decided to destroy the world because the people were “purely evil all day” — since they had chosen evil, they deserved to be destroyed. But after the Flood, Hashem asserts that humans are “evil from their youth” — He ‘realizes’ that the evil inclination is built in, a part of them “from their youth.” Since Man must constantly struggle with his powerful evil inclination, he deserves some slack when he fails. While he is still held responsible for his actions, those actions will never lead to another worldwide destruction. Hashem no longer links the continued existence of the world to Man’s goodness. [Hashem continues to be ready to punish people for doing evil, as we see when he destroys Sedom and Amora.]


Originally, Hashem’s plan had been to establish a close relationship with all humans. That plan met with disappointment and was rejected. The theme of the rest of Sefer Bereishit is Hashem’s search for “a few good men”: our parasha begins the process by which Hashem will identify the individuals to found an elect group, the one nation which will maintain a close relationship with Him. This is the meaning of the term “am segula” which we find later in the Torah: we have a special, intimate relationship with Hashem which implies both privileges and responsibilities.

Not only is this a turning point in the grand divine plan, it’s also a turning point for the Torah from a literary perspective. Until now, we’ve heard a lot about the universal: the creation of the entire cosmos, the sins of all of humanity, the destruction of the whole world. But from here on, the rest of Sefer Bereishit is filled with stories about individual people. The topic remains the development of a relationship between Hashem and humanity, but Hashem has decided to establish a special relationship with a select group. The stories of Sefer Bereishit explain how Hashem comes to choose this particular group of people.


The first person to come along with the right combination of characteristics to found Hashem’s elite group is Avraham. The Torah does not tell us whether Hashem tested other people before Avraham to see if they could fill the role, but it is possible that there were other candidates before Avraham. If so, the reason we hear about only Avraham is because he is the only one to pass all the tests and succeed! [I have heard that the Hiddushei HaRim says that Hashem did indeed make attempts to get others to go to Cana’an before attempting with Avraham, but none of them listened. I was unable to find this myself in the Hiddushei HaRim.]

Avraham’s first reported act in our parasha is “Lekh lekha” — he abandons his life in Ur Kasdim, following the command of Hashem to leave everything behind and move to Cana’an. [Actually, the end of Parashat Noah seems to imply that Terah, Avraham’s father, led the family out of Ur Kasdim towards Cana’an, but the family stops for an undetermined time at Haran, where Terah dies. Hazal and the mefarshim suggest various solutions to resolve this account with the beginning of Parashat Lekh Lekha.] But our discussion will focus on something perhaps less well-understood: two very important agreements which Hashem makes with Avraham in our parasha.

We start with the “Berit bein ha-betarim,” the “Covenant Between the Split Parts”:

BEREISHIT 15:1-18 —
After these matters, the word of Hashem came to Avram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Avram, I shall protect you; your reward is truly great.”

Avram said, “Hashem, Lord, what can You give to me? For I am childless, and the master of provisions of my house is Eliezer of Damascus!” Avram said, “You have not given me children; the son of my household [i.e., my servant] shall inherit me!”

The word of Hashem came to him, saying, “He shall not inherit you; instead, he who comes from your body, he shall inherit you.” He brought him outside and said, “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you can count them!” He told him: “So [many] shall be your children.” He believed Hashem, and thought it just [“tzedaka”].

He said to him, “I am Hashem, who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land as an inheritance.”

He said, “Lord Hashem, by what sign will I know that I shall inherit it?” He said to him, “Take for Me a 3-year-old calf, a 3-year-old goat, a 3-year-old ram, and a turtledove, and a young dove.” He brought all these to Him and split them down the middle, and put each piece opposite the other; but he did not split the bird . . . . The sun was about to set, and a deep sleep fell upon Avram, and then a black, terrible fear fell upon him. He said to Avram, “Know that your children shall be foreigners in a land not their own, and they shall enslave them and abuse them for four hundred years. But also the nation whom they serve, judge I shall; then they shall leave with great wealth. But you shall come to your fathers in peace — you shall be buried at a good old age. And the fourth generation will return here, because the sins of the Emori will not be complete until then.” The sun had set, and it was twilight, and [there appeared] a smoking oven, with a flaming fire, which passed between the pieces.

On that day, Hashem made a covenant with Avram, saying, “To your children I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great Euphrates River . . . .”

Now that we have read through the passage, we can start with some questions:

1) The first thing Hashem says to Avraham is, “Don’t be afraid.” What is Avraham afraid of, that he needs Hashem’s reassurance?

2) Next, Hashem tells Avraham that he will be rewarded well — but for what?

3) Taking Hashem’s entire statement together, why does He connect two things which seem totally unrelated: a) Avraham’s fear of something, from which he needs protection and b) the fact that he will be rewarded?

4) Avraham’s doubting Hashem’s assurance of reward seems shocking: is he questioning the promise he has already received about his having children?

5) Hashem shows Avraham the stars and promises that his descendants will be similarly numerous. But then, just a moment or two later, Hashem seems to interrupt the conversation to introduce Himself again: “I am Hashem, who brought you out of Ur Kasdim . . . .” Doesn’t Avraham know Whom he has been talking with?

6) In response to Hashem’s mentioning that this land will be Avraham’s inheritance, Avraham seems to ask for some sort of guarantee. Is he questioning the promises he has already received about his inheriting the land?

7) A related question: what does the slavery in Egypt have to do with Avraham’s question?


1) On the issue of what Avraham is afraid of, several interpretations are offered by the mefarshim (commentators) :

a) Avraham is afraid he has used up his stored-up merit, that he has been rewarded for all of his good deeds with the success Hashem has granted him in the war he and his men have just won. He fears that he has consumed what should have been stored up for him as his portion in the afterlife. (The weakness of this alternative is that there is no evidence for it at all in the text.)

b) He is afraid that during the war he killed a righteous person. (Again, no evidence for this in the text.)

c) He is afraid that the supporters of the kings he has beaten will hunt him down. (Support for this possibility: Hashem’s reassurance comes immediately after Avraham’s victory in the war.)

In any event, what is clear here is that Hashem is doing is reassuring him.

2) What is the reward is for? Again, suggestions from the mefarshim:

a) The reward is his place in the world to come, a reward for all the good deeds of his life: he is being told that he did not use up all of his merit. (Again, no textual support at all.)

b) The reward is for saving Lot, his nephew, which is what he has just done in the previous section and for which he has just refused the reward offered by the king of Sedom. Hashem is reassuring him that despite his refusal of the king of Sedom’s reward (Avraham did not want to be enriched by an evil person), he will be rewarded.

3) Why does Hashem connect the seemingly unrelated issues of Avraham’s fear and the reward he will get?

The most plausible connection is that both concerns flow directly from the section preceding the one above. Avraham is afraid of reprisals from the defeated kings, so Hashem reassures him of divine protection; Avraham has refused the reward offered by the king of Sedom, so Hashem assures him that He will reward Avraham Himself.

Hashem is especially interested in reassuring Avraham about the reward not because he wants Avraham to know he will be rewarded per se, but because this promise of reward provokes Avraham into revealing his anxiety about having no children to whom to pass whatever Hashem might give him. Hashem means to provoke this expression of insecurity so that He can reconfirm the promise and strengthen Avraham’s faith in it. If you don’t agree yet with this reading, in a moment we’ll see more evidence for it.

4) That moves us to the next question: is Avraham questioning Hashem’s promise of children?

a) Most mefarshim suggest that Avraham is not doubting Hashem’s promise, but he is afraid that the promise has been revoked because he did something wrong. There is no textual evidence for this approach; the commentators are motivated to suggest this alternative primarily because the other alternative is to say that Avraham did indeed doubt Hashem’s promise.

b) A plain reading of the text indicates exactly that: Avraham’s faith in the promise is weakening. He has grown old, yet he remains childless. He believed the promise before, but he is beginning to worry, and he wants reassurance.

This alternative may seem controversial, but it is explicitly supported by the next pasuk (verse), which makes the strange comment that Avraham “believed the promise.” In other words, only after Hashem’s reassurance is Avraham confident that Hashem will indeed give him a child. Perhaps our image of Avraham makes it hard for us to believe that he could doubt anything Hashem said, but the Torah itself tells us here that only after this reassurance do Avraham’s doubts go away. We will return to this issue as we continue.

5) Why does Hashem interrupt the conversation to introduce Himself once again?

This is really not an interruption in the middle of the conversation. It’s the Torah’s way of telling us that these are two totally separate conversations! Hashem introduces Himself again because He is indeed introducing Himself at the beginning of a separate conversation which took place at a different time. The reason why the Torah places the two conversations side by side is part of the answer to our next question.

6) Is Avraham questioning the promise about the land? Possibilities:

a) He is worried that the promise has been revoked because he did something wrong. (Again, no evidence for this.)

b) Avraham is getting old, and the land is still quite occupied by Cana’anite nations. He sees nothing happening to advance the process of his inheriting the land. He wants confirmation of the promise.

As mentioned above, there are really two totally separate episodes here. The first episode concerns the promise of children; this section ends when the Torah tells us that Avraham believes the promise. Then comes another story, which begins with Hashem introducing Himself and mentioning, seemingly out of nowhere, that He is the God who took Avraham out of Ur Kasdim in order to give the land of Cana’an to him as an inheritance. What Hashem is trying to do is to provoke Avraham into revealing his anxiety about this issue as well — if he is indeed to inherit the land, when is that going to happen? He has been promised that he will inherit it, but the years are passing by and there is no sign that the divine plan is becoming reality.

It should be clear by now that the reason the Torah puts these two stories together is because of their common theme. In both, Hashem provokes Avraham into revealing his doubts about the promises he has received. This gives Hashem the opportunity to reassure him.

7) Our last question was why Hashem tells Avraham all about the enslavement in Egypt at this point, and how this relates to his question about inheriting the land.

Avraham’s question was whether he would inherit the land, and if so, when. Hashem responds that Avraham misunderstood the promise: the land would never actually be his personally — it would belong to his descendants. Hashem tells him that before they inherit the land, two other processes will have to run their course: the enslavement in Egypt and the moral degradation of the current Cana’anite inhabitants of the land to the point where they deserve to lose their claim to it.


We are used to thinking of Avraham as appearing on the scene of the Humash with his faith in Hashem already perfect; we are used to thinking of him as having *already* been selected by Hashem. I am suggesting that he has not yet passed all the tests (a thought confirmed resoundingly by Hazal). At this point, Hashem is both training him and reassuring him, on the one hand, as well as testing him, on the other hand. The command to leave his homeland is one of the tests, which, as we know, he passes. This earns him the right to the promises recorded earlier in the parasha — the promises of children and land. In the section we looked at above, Hashem relates to Avraham not as a tester, challenging Avraham’s faith, but as a trainer and reassurer of Avraham’s faith. Avraham is afraid, so Hashem tells him not to be afraid, that He will protect him; Avraham is worried about the promise of children, so Hashem provokes him into revealing his doubt and then reassures him; Avraham is worried about the promise of the land, so Hashem provokes him into revealing his doubt and then reassures him by making a covenant with him.

Doubt is part of the process of growing in faith. Hashem understands that we often need reassurance, even about things we have already been told. Hashem knows that we are not born with perfect faith, and does not expect that we will never falter in that faith. In these two stories, Hashem shows tremendous patience with Avraham’s doubts and a deep willingness to train Avraham to strengthen his faith. We usually miss this critical message of the Torah because we simply assume that Avraham could never have doubted anything. We are therefore forced to deny the plain sense of the Torah.

Our parasha presents a process by which Hashem both strengthens Avraham and tests his strength; if Avraham harbored doubts and needed strengthening, it is certainly acceptable for us to have doubts and to need strengthening. Not only is it legitimate to have doubts, it is also legitimate to come to Hashem Himself with these doubts and share them with Him.


The next section we will look at is one in which Avraham receives the command of Berit Mila — the covenant of circumcision. Because of time and space concerns, we will look at this section only briefly.

BEREISHIT 17:1-14 —
Avram was 99 years old, and Hashem appeared to Avram and said to him, “I am E-l Shad-dai, walk before Me and be perfect. I hereby place My covenant between Me and you, and I shall greatly, greatly increase you.”

Avram fell upon his face, and Hashem spoke with him, saying: “I hereby make a covenant with you: you shall be the father of MANY NATIONS. You shall no longer be called ‘Avram’, but ‘Avraham’, because I have made you the father of MANY NATIONS [“av hamon goyyim”]. I shall make you very, very fruitful — into NATIONS — and kings shall come from you. I will uphold My covenant between Me and you, and with YOUR CHILDREN AFTER YOU, in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be your God and YOUR CHILDREN’S AFTER YOU. I will give to you and YOUR CHILDREN AFTER YOU the land in which you live, all of the Land of Cana’an, as a permanent possession, and I will be their God.”

Hashem said to Avraham, “You shall keep My covenant, you and YOUR CHILDREN AFTER YOU, in their generations. This is My covenant which you should keep between Me and you, and with YOUR CHILDREN AFTER YOU: circumcise every male. You should circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, as a sign of the covenant between Me and you. An uncircumcised male, who does not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin — that soul will be cut off from its nation; he has annulled My covenant.”

How is this covenant different from the Berit bein HaBetarim, the Covenant Between the Pieces, which we looked at above? One way to pinpoint differences between apparently similar pieces of the Torah is to look for the key words of each section and compare them to each other. In the section we have just read, the following words and phrases are key:

1) “Many nations”: there is a particular emphasis on Avraham’s development into “nations” or “many nations.”

2) “Your children after you”: the most significant phrase we find here is “your children after you,” which appears 5 times within 4 pesukim (verses) — twice in verse 7, and once each in 8, 9, and 10.

In other words, while the previous berit (covenant) focused powerfully on Avraham personally and individually, this covenant focuses very much on the relationship between Hashem and the *descendants* of Avraham. This is not just a promise of children and land for Avraham qua righteous individual, not just reassurance and strengthening for Avraham qua man of growing faith, it is the establishment of a covenant between a leader and all generations of his descendants.

3) “An everlasting covenant”: one other indication of the everlasting nature of this covenant is that the pesukim come right out and tell us — twice — that this covenant is permanent, in pesukim 7 and 8.

The content of the covenant itself is contained in pesukim 7 and 8, and it is two-fold:

a) Hashem will be the God of this nation forever. This is an unprecedented phrase in the Torah: never before has Hashem said a word about being the God of any one particular people. Until now, He has been the God of all nations equally. Now, He focuses on one nation. This nation will be the select group with the special relationship with Hashem, and they will possess the Land of Cana’an forever.

The physical symbol of this covenant also indicates that the covenant does not focus on Avraham, the individual, and instead focuses on all of the future individuals of the nation he will produce. That symbol is the mila, circumcision. Avraham is the first person to enter this covenant, the first to perform the act of cutting which is traditionally part of a covenant (as in the case of the Covenant Between the “Cut Pieces” which we discussed above). But unlike the previous covenant, which was sealed by Avraham and his action, this covenant, the covenant of circumcision, must be repeated in every generation, by every male individual who wishes to be a part of it. Unlike the Covenant Between the Cut Pieces, where Avraham played a central role, here he is only the first in a line of millions of Jews who will enter the same covenant with Hashem. By keeping the covenant, each generation affirms its relationship with Hashem and with Eretz Yisrael. Of course, one cannot help pondering this everlasting covenant’s implications in light of recent developments in Israel: finding the correct balance between our responsibility to our and future generations’ connection to Eretz Yisrael, and our responsibility to our and future generations’ safety and security and peace, can only be a wrenching process. May Hashem guide us and our leaders.

Shabbat Shalom