Thursday, November 25, 2010



Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi




And he dreamed again another dream (Gen. 37:90).

The part of the book of Genesis that we have been studying during the past several weeks focuses heavily on dreams.  Jacob begins his odyssey with the magnificent dream of a ladder joining heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending, and with the Divine Presence at its head.  This dream is Jacob’s first encounter with God.  Significantly, Jacob himself recognizes the dream as an unconscious experience.  Upon awakening he is disappointed that he had not been conscious of his encounter with God.
According to Maimonides and several other commentators, Jacob’s encounter with the mysterious “man” during the dark night of his soul was also a dream experience. In his unconscious state, he played out his struggle with his twin brother Esau, who was, in fact, his alter ego, the disowned part of his personality. It was with this unacceptable aspect of himself with which he wrestled, and whose unconscious influence upon him had tormented him until the resolution of his inner conflict on that fateful night.

This week’s Torah reading again focuses on dreams.  It opens with Joseph’s vision of his brothers gathering sheaves, and of those sheaves bowing down before his own.  In his second dream the sun and the moon and the twelve stars are pictured as acknowledging him.  These dreams are prophetic. The first is his unconscious intimation of himself as provider, his family recognizing their dependence upon him for their physical survival.  The second is his intimation of the transcendent force that moved him to initiate the preordained exile of his family, and, ultimately, of his people, their descendents.
 Joseph’s are not the only dreams of pivotal importance in the unfolding of his destined path.  The baker and the butler, too have disquieting nightmares. Joseph’s accurate interpretation of these dreams catapults him onto the central stage of history, since Pharaoh, too, has two disquieting dream experiences. Joseph, alone, succeeds both in analyzing the symbology of the dreams, and also in strategizing the national response to what those dreams portend.
Both Joseph and Pharaoh have two dreams. But there is a striking difference between Joseph’s dreams and Pharaoh’s dreams.  In the case of Joseph’s dreams, our text states:  And he dreamed again another dream [acher].  In Pharaoh’s case, the Torah declares:  And he slept and dreamed a second time. Joseph, interpreting Pharaohs dream, notes that:  Pharaoh’s dream is one [echad].  The Hebrew words acher and echad are similar in that they share two of the three root letters-- and yet they are significantly different.  The similarity invites comparison.  The difference demands comment.
Both dreamers have two dreams.  Both are symbolic representations of reality.   But whereas the symbols of each of Pharaoh’s dreams are different, the meaning is identical.  Two sets of symbols are really the same dream message conveyed slightly differently.  Both use farming images.  Both focus on physical reality.  Pharaoh’s two dreams are one in that they are earth- bound and focused upon the land as a source of sustenance.

 Joseph’s dreams, on the other hand, are about the earth and its sustenance, but also about the heavens.  Joseph’s ability to encompass both heaven and earth in his vision make him a different kind of dreamer from Pharaoh, the baker and the butler.  This is why our text describes his second dream as different [acher] from his first.

 Pharaoh’s dreams reflect his understandable concern for the physical welfare and survival of his subjects and the prosperity of his realm.  His unconscious dream process reveals his single-minded focus.  Joseph, on the other hand synthesizes the material and the spiritual, recognizing the transcendent forces that govern our physical reality and personal histories.  It is precisely in this synthesizing vision that his uniqueness is expressed.

Dreaming is a universal human experience.  Everybody dreams.  Our dreams, for the most part, reveal our unconscious struggles and anxieties.  They tell us, usually in symbolic form, what it is that bothers us. At the end of tractate Berakhot, the Talmud, focuses on dreams and their interpretation, predating Sigmund Freud by many centuries. 

Rabbi Yisra’el Salanter, like Sigmund Freud after him, recognized the importance of our subconscious processes.  For Freud, the unconscious is determinative.  Unconscious forces, over which we have no control, drive us and determine many of our behavioral patterns.  Salanter, on the contrary, believed that we can control the content of our unconscious minds, so that we no longer need to be influenced by dark forces that are not under our control.

Because we can actually train our unconscious minds and transform their content, the dreams we dream are in our hands.  We can choose about what we wish to dream.  For Freud, our dreams necessarily reflect who we are; for Salanter, they reflect who we wish to be.

 Pharaoh’s dreams reflected the role that destiny had determined for him.  Joseph’s dreams were intimations of what he could become on his own initiative.  Scripture does not call him a cholem chalomot [a dreamer of dreams], but a ba’al chalomot [a master of dreams].  Not only did he dare to dream the impossible synthesizing dream of heaven and earth, of the physical and the spiritual, but also he knew that the fulfillment of those dreams was in his hands.  The Hebrew word ba’al means “owner”.  Joseph owned his dreams and translated them into reality.

Joseph is our role model. He dared to dream a different dream.  What dreams shall we dream?   

Note: Rabbi Abner Weiss’s weekly Torah teaching can be accessed at


Thursday, November 18, 2010



Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi




And Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break off dawn.   And he saw that he could not overcome him, and struck the socket of Jacob’s hip as he wrestled with him.  And he said, “Send me away, for the dawn has broken.”  And he [Jacob] said:  “I shall not send you away unless you bless me.”  And he said onto him: “What is your name?”  And he said: “Jacob”.   And he [the “man”] said:  “No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have overcome.”  And he blessed him there.  And Jacob named the place Peni’el, since [he declared]:  “I have seen God face to face, and my life was saved.”  And the sun rose for him as he passed Penuel, and he was limping on account of his hip.  Therefore the children of Israel are not to eat the displaced sinew on the hip pocket to this day (Genesis 32:25-33).

Our text is the description of events that precede the encounter between Jacob and Esau after twenty years of separation. From their earliest youth the relationship of the brothers was deeply troubled. Jacob’s name aptly described his character.  The name Ya’akov (Jacob) means “supplanter”.     It derives from the Hebrew root ekev-“a heel.”  Jacob is a supplanter, in that he grabs his sibling rival by the heel, seeking, literally to bring him down.  He twice deceives his brother, first by extorting his birthright, and then by duplicitously acquiring the special blessing meant for Esau.  Infuriated by the two-fold deception, Esau vows to kill Jacob after their father’s death and Jacob is forced into exile to save his life.

En route to the home of his uncle Laban, Jacob has an inspiring vision of God, and is assured of his eventual safe return. Jacob, in fact, appears to make a deal with God, promising his faith in exchange for divine protection.

In exile, too, he is compelled to live by his wits, needing to outsmart his devious father-in-law in order to amass his own fortune, and to leave with his wives, children and entourage.

 Significantly, in the same way as he begins his exile as a refugee from his brother, so he ends up as a refugee from his father-in-law. Although he has survived by his cunning and his ability to exploit the weaknesses of his opponents, he always remains a displaced person.

Believing that Esau still harbors hatred for him, and hearing that Esau is coming to confront him with 400 men, Jacob prepares for the worst. He divides his camp in two, so that if Esau should attack one part, the other would escape.

On the night before the dreaded confrontation, Jacob remains alone, preparing himself for what will happen. It is then that he has the strange encounter with the “man” who wrestles with him in the darkness of the night.

Maimonides  (Guide for the Perplexed, 2:32) suggests that there was no actual physical encounter; Jacob’s struggle with “the man” was a vision. Abravanel, citing Gersonides, agrees with Maimonides, and suggests that the hip injury was the physical consequence of the unconscious struggle–in fact, the traumatic aftermath of the terrifying vision. Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim, in similar vein, suggests that the encounter was the inner struggle between Jacob’s spiritual potential and his material nature (the “man”).

Our text raises a number of vexing questions, many of which are touched upon by the traditional commentators whom we have sampled. Why did Jacob remain alone on that dark night of the soul preceding his anticipated encounter with Esau? Surely the situation called for the protective presence of trained fighters and for the counsel of trusted advisors. Who, indeed, was the mysterious “man” with whom Jacob struggled? Why is Scripture, usually so clear, so obscure in this passage. Why does the Torah disclose that the sun rose for him? Did he alone merit the dawning of a new day? Why was Jacob wounded just when it appeared that he was victorious? Why would he demand a blessing from the adversary who had tried to kill them, and from whom he might reasonably have expected precisely the opposite? Jacob was not the first biblical name to be changed; Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah. In these instances, however, the original names are not used again. This is not the case here; Jacob continues to be called Jacob. He is referred to as Israel with relative infrequency. What, then, is the significance of a change of name, which is not to be used consistently in the future–in contrast with Abraham and Sarah?

Existentialist thinkers have identified four ultimate concerns, shared by most human beings: the fear of death, the fear of isolation, the fear of freedom and the fear of meaninglessness. It would seem that all of these ultimate concerns are at play in our scriptural passage. And Jacob was very frightened (Heb: va-yira me’od) and it distressed him (va-yetzer lo) (Genesis 32:8). “Fear” and “distress” are not necessarily only synonyms, and merely employed for emphasis, as some have suggested. The word me’od (very) itself provides such emphasis. Nor do they necessarily point to two different sources of discomfort, as some commentators have suggested. On the contrary, it appears that Jacob’s distress (va-yetzer lo) is a consequence of this terrible dread, as was indeed suggested by Da’at Zekenim.

However a phenomenological analysis of Jacob’s distress goes far beyond the merely causal relationship between fear and distress which the Da’at Zekenim. suggests. The word va-yetzer derives from the same Hebrew root as the word tzar, which means, “narrow”, “constricted,” “confined.” It is as if the Torah is attempting to convey exactly how Jacob experiences his fear. The term va-yetzer lo evokes a sense of helpless thrownness into the world, a condition in which our present is determined by our past, and we despair of having a future. “The world… narrows existence down to fewer and fewer possibilities and even imprisons it, to a point where existence is finally overpowered and nullified by it.” (Binswanger). This experience is precisely what Jacob undergoes. He is constricted, in a hole, hollow, in dread of nullification, of becoming a no-thing..

Jacob had customarily attempted to deal with situations of distress through tricks and stratagems–-his exploitation of Esau’s weakness to gain his birthright, his deception of his father to gain his brother’s blessing, and his skills in animal breeding to outwit his father-in-law. Jacob’s character is, indeed, a reflection of his name–Ya’akov. But, notwithstanding Jacob’s apparent successes, va-yetzer lo, he is ultimately constricted by the dread of the world. His experience of life as dread-full (va-yira me’od)  is a function of all four of the primal existential anxieties to which we have referred.

 On last dread–filled night, Jacob finally fully confronts the reality of his mortality. Death is an ever-present anxiety. It terrorizes people when it takes those who are nearest and dearest to them, reminding them that it will one day come stalking at their door also. Yet most people repress the terror, denying its existential reality by blocking it from their consciousness.

For 20 years, Jacob has known that he would have to face Esau, who has threatened to kill him, but he succeeds in repressing his fear. Finally, the moment of truth is upon him. Esau approaches, accompanied by his army. Jacob now stares death in the face. Martin Heidegger points out that death, as a boundary situation, “act as a spur to shift us from one mode of existence to a higher one.” I believe that,  in the face of his death, Jacob begins the process of his rebirth as an authentic self. The conclusion of this process is symbolized by his receiving a new name. Jacob, “the deceiver,” is transformed into Israel, “the noble striver”. The sun rises for him on the first day of his new experience of being.

  One’s dread of death is closely associated with one’s terror of isolation. One’s experience of death is one’s own-most thing. One dies alone, totally isolated. One’s death cannot be shared, and one’s sense of isolation in death reflects one’s often-repressed anxiety about isolation in life. Can anybody know my feelings, feel my pain, share my terrors, experience my fears, really know what it feels like to me when I love deeply, or experience my feelings of awe when I am granted a powerful flash of intuition in a rare moment of grace?  No matter how fortunate I am in my social networks and in the support of a loving family, my being in the world is essentially isolated. If this is true when one shares one’s being with others, how much more so  when one stands alone, feeling utterly abandoned.

Jacob’s  experience of isolation is reflected in the stark words of our text: And Jacob remained alone (Genesis 32:25). He’s sense of existential isolation, like his fear of death, is experienced as va-yetzer lo –constriction. Erich Fromm comes very close to expressing what Jacob’s experience of isolation must have been like. For Fromm, existential isolation is the uranxiety. “Being separate means being cut off, without any capacity to use my human powers. Hence, to be separate means to be helpless, unable to grasp the world. It means that the world can invade me without my ability to react.”

For Jacob the sense of isolation is all encompassing. It even includes his experience of alienation from God. Preparing himself for his encounter with Esau, he calls upon God (Genesis 32:12 to 13), reminding Him of his promises to him of success and salvation. But God, uncharacteristically, is silent. Jacob is spiritually absolutely alone. He is also socially alone. He is isolated both from his brother and from his adopted family through marriage, and, perhaps, from his wives as well. His brother is about to kill him. According to the Midrash, his wives are resentful of their enforced relocation from their family and homeland, and of the mortal dangers, which this relocation portends. Jacob himself is dislocated. He has at burned his bridges to his foster home of 20 years, and his brother blocks the way to his new home. Isolated in every way, Jacob is in the existential mode of the “not at home.”

Jacob’s experience of existential isolation on that dark, agonizing night of his soul discloses to him another of the universal ultimate concerns--the fear of freedom.  According to most existential thinkers, the fear of freedom is experienced as the dread of accepting responsibility, where responsibility is also experienced as loneliness. “To the extent that one is responsible for one’s life, on is alone. Responsibility implies authorship:  to be aware of one’s authorship means to forsake the belief that there is another who [will completely protect] one” (Irvin Yalom). Jacob had always made God alone ultimately responsible for his safety and well-being.  In flight from Esau, he had bargained with God:  And Jacob made a vow, saying:  “If God will be with me and will guard me on this way in which I walk, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I shall return in peace to my father’s home, then the Lord will be God unto me” (Gen. 28:20-21).  On his return twenty years later, he again places full responsibility upon God: “Save me, I pray, from my brother Esau, for I fear that he will come and kill me and the children and their mothers.  For, You said:  I shall deal well with you…”(Gen. 32:12-13).

But now, alone in the face of God’s silence, Jacob can no longer shift responsibility to God.  Nor can he any longer conceal from himself that, in a sense he had actually become his twin brother Esau, the cunning hunter.  It is now no longer possible for him to repress his guilt and deny responsibility for what he has done to Esau.  This is the insightful comment of the rabbis of the Midrash who suggest that the only blessing desired by Jacob is forgiveness for having wronged his brother.  It is also what a host of commentators mean in their assertion that Jacob wrestled with the guardian angel of Esau.  His struggle was really with the Esau within himself.  Jacob recognizes that  he must accept full responsibility for his being and for his actions.  On this night of dread there is no escape from responsibility/freedom.  He faces the grim choice of being the no-thing he is now experiencing or of creating himself anew—the ultimate act of responsibility authorship and freedom.

There is a fourth and final aspect of Jacob’s transformative experience during his dark night of despair—his sudden realization that his entire life’s struggle had been without transcendent meaning .  Viktor Frankl point out that lack of meaning is the fundamental source of anxiety and neurosis.  His personal experience of Auschwitz persuaded him that survival is a function of one’s ability to find meaning in one’s suffering, which is attained through self-transcendence.  Transcendence, thus understood, is ex-istence in its original sense of standing outside of one’s current, trapped and hopeless situation.  It is only by moving out of one’s situation that one can actualize one’s suppressed potential and become other than what one is at present, finally entering into the fullness of being. 

Jacob had been comfortable both in bargaining with God and thus, also, with his conditional relationship with the Divine.  He had been granted inspired visions, but lacked the immediate consciousness of the meaning of the inspiration:  Behold God is in this place, but I knew it not (Gen. 28:16).  He was unable to ex-ist, to transcend his personal situation.  His encounter was not authentic.  He had been granted Divine visions, but had missed the opportunity offered him of genuine engagement with God.  Only now, in his struggle with “the man,” does he have an immediate, conscious encounter with God:  And he called the name of the place Peni’el, for I saw the Lord face to face and my soul was saved (Gen.  32:31).  Kimhi comments that Jacob’s acknowledgement  that his life had been saved through face-to-face encounter was a new experience for him.  

Jacob’s struggle is with himself. But it is also with God.  The mysterious man is simultaneously Jacob and his God.  The experience is transformative.  Jacob becomes Israel.  Faced with becoming a no-thing, he accepts responsibility for his past and authorship of his future.  He stands outside of his empty existence, and the archetypal manipulator  creates himself anew, assuming a new mode of relationship with man and with God.  In Jacob’s struggle for survival, God ahs literally “saved his soul” (Gen.  32:31).He has wrested blessing from adversity, triumph from travail. 

However, self-transcendence is not possible without suffering.  Jacob’s encounter leaves him limping. The dislocated person suffers a dislocated hip. He is transformed from conniving manipulator to wounded hero. 

One question remains unanswered:  Unlike Abraham and  Sarah,  the name  Israel  does not replace the name  Jacob.  Indeed, the third patriarch is more commonly called Jacob than he is called Israel.  I suggest that self-transcendence cannot possibly be a permanent mode of being.  At best, the best of us can achieve moments of transcendence.  Then, enriched and perhaps also wounded, we have to come to earth again to face the challenges of material survival.  Yisra’el  must inevitably become  Ya’akov –to plan, plot, work out, connive, develop strategies for survival—hopefully, this time without deceit, and ennobled by the experience of transcendence.

Note:  I originally published this Torah lesson in the Journal of Psychology and Judaism, Vol.18, No.1, Spring, 1994, pp 19-31, as Jacob’s Struggle:  A Psycho-Existential Exegesis.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On the Rungs of Angels Parshat Vayetze:

Parshat Vayetze:
On the Rungs of Angels

Guest Torah Teaching


Sheila Keiter

            In our parsha, Yaakov is on his way to Haran.  He comes to an unnamed location, which the commentators universally identify as Har HaMoriah, the site of the Akeida, where he is forced to stay for the night.  There he has his famous dream, of the ladder reaching toward heaven, of angels ascending and descending, and of God standing above him.  In the dream, God speaks to Yaakov, assuring him of His divine protection, and promising him all of the blessings of the covenant with Avraham and Yitzhak.  (Breishit 28:10-15.)

            The dream is striking, and the obvious question is, what does it mean?  There have been numerous interpretations offered over the centuries.  In fact, Abarbanel goes so far as to catalogue several of them into seven different explanations, and his list is by no means exhaustive.  Some see the ladder as a prophetic symbol of Jewish history, of exile and return.  Others see it as representing God’s connection with Yaakov.  Some explain the ladder in more symbolic terms, as representing different levels of the soul, or levels of the world.  Others see it as teaching about the nature and limitations of God’s angels.  And many, including Abarbanel, see the dream as prophesying about the Beit Hamikdash that will eventually be built on that spot.

            As Abarbanel explains, all of these explanations have value in and of themselves.  However, Abarbanel is unsatisfied with most of them, because so few of them relate directly to Yaakov or to the circumstances that he faced at the time he had his dream.  Given Abarbanel’s criteria for a satisfying explanation, I will attempt to offer an interpretation of my own.

            Who was Yaakov and what was his situation?  At this point in the narrative, we know precious little about Yaakov, other than the fact that he seems to have some devious tendencies.  We know he is a “yoshev ohalim,” one who sits in tents. (Breishit 25:27.)  That really doesn’t tell us much.  There is no indication that he even helps out his father as a shepherd.  Yitzhak has plenty of shepherds, and doesn’t need Yaakov’s aid.  Apparently he doesn’t do much of anything.  He just sits and, perhaps, thinks. 

            At the beginning of our parsha, Yaakov has already been an adult for a number of decades.  (His exact age is unknown, but he may very well be in his sixties or seventies, and certainly over forty.)  Yet he has no vocation.  He is unmarried.  He has no children.  He has done nothing productive with his life.  And now he is on the run, afraid for his life, alone and with nothing with him but his staff.  He has to use rocks for a pillow!  In this context comes the dream. 

            The most striking feature of the dream is the ladder.  Yet it is an odd feature.  Why a ladder?  Any structure allowing the angels to ascend and descend would have been suitable.  Why not a ramp or a staircase?  In fact, some translators and commentators have suggested just that.  The imagery of a ladder is awkward.  When I was young I had a hard time picturing the angels going both up and down on a narrow ladder.  Wouldn’t they bump into each other?  I eventually resolved that problem by picturing the angels going up on one side of the ladder and coming down on the other side.  But I still cringed picturing them stepping on each others’ fingers.  Finally, I concluded that the ladder must have been wider than the typical ladder.  But wouldn’t, as Led Zeppelin suggested, a stairway to heaven be simpler?

            The ladder is deliberate and essential.  In ancient times, as today, ladders were used in construction.  They are necessary tools for building.  Thus, the ladder in Yaakov’s dream represents productivity, ambition, and accomplishment, the very elements missing from his character.  The angels going up and down are busily engaged in their tasks.  They are gainfully employed and busy with activity.  They act in sharp contrast to the stationary Yaakov.  The message is clear.  Yaakov needs to start building his life.  He needs to build a family.

            The ladder was used for another purpose in ancient times.  It was a tool of siege warfare.  Invading forces would use ladders to scale the walls of fortified cities.  This use of the ladder is equally apt to Yaakov’s situation.  Yaakov is being forced to transcend self-imposed barriers and to break through to a new phase of his life.

            This explanation, however, begs another question.  Why should Yaakov be the one to carry on the covenant of Avraham and Yitzhak?  If Yaakov’s deficiency is one of inaction, why not favor Eisav?  In contrast to Yaakov, Eisav is a doer.  Eisav is a hunter.  Eisav is married.  Eisav has children.  Eisav has built a life. 

The ladder is a symbol that can more easily be claimed by Eisav than Yaakov.  It was another hunter, Nimrod, who constructed the first great cities in the post-diluvian world and established a kingdom. (Breishit 10:8-10.)  Eisav is the progenitor of Edom, understood to be Rome, a civilization famed for its construction and conquest.  Yaakov, on the other hand, has none of these qualities and has accomplished absolutely nothing.  Perhaps Yitzhak’s evaluation of his two sons was not the product of senility or sentimentality after all.  Why should God fulfill the covenant through Yaakov?

            Abarbanel offers a wonderful insight into Yaakov’s situation.  Not only is he scared, alone and poor, but he must be filled with self-doubt.  Sure, he received the blessing of the covenant from his father Yitzhak, but he has deceived his father and cheated his brother out of the blessing that was meant for him.  He cannot help but think that these actions were sinful in God’s eyes, and perhaps he has brought a curse on himself rather than a blessing.  Perhaps, through his actions, he has forfeited the Abrahamic blessing.  This insight provides us with the key difference between Yaakov and Eisav.  Yaakov cares enough about the covenantal blessing to fear he has lost it.

            The questions we, the descendants of Yaakov, must ask ourselves, is do we deserve the blessings of the covenant.  Do we care enough about our covenant with God to fear losing it?

Monday, November 8, 2010


                       WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE

Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder [was] standing on the ground, its top reaching heavenwards. And behold, the angels of God [were] going up and down bo.
Behold, God was standing on it. And He said:  I am the Lord, God of your father Abraham, and the God of Isaac….And Jacob awoke from his sleep and said: Behold, the Lord is in this place, but I [anokhi] did not know it. (Genesis 28:10-13,16)

I have chosen not to translate the Hebrew word bo in our text, since it’s meaning is disputed by the sages. It can denote either on it or on him:
[The meaning of our text is disputed by] Rabbi Chiyya and Rabbi Yannai. The one says [the angels were ascending and descending on the ladder, and the other said that they were ascending and descending on Jacob. …They were chiding him, jumping all over him and maligning him. … When they went upwards, they saw his likeness [engraved on the Throne of Glory], but when they went down, they found him fast asleep. (Genesis Rabbah 68:18) 
On the second interpretation, Jacob unconsciously perceived himself as a ladder bridging heaven and earth, with the angels ascending and descending on him. From one point of view, when they saw the very lofty heights he could reach, they sang his praises. From the other, looking down towards him, they saw him sleeping on a rock, unconscious of his enormous potential and totally unaware of the enveloping presence of the Divine.
In this dream, Jacob sees himself as a split personality. On the one hand, he personifies the ideal, spiritually realized personality, as it were, adorning God’s throne. On the other, he is revealed as earthbound and spiritually unaware, an unconscious figure, fast asleep.
His confusion about his true identity is depicted vividly. Prior to the dream narrative, the last words he had uttered were in response to his father’s question when he was pretending to be as his brother Esau: “Who are you, my son?” And he [Jacob] said to his father: “I [Anokhi] am Esau, your first born.”(Genesis 27:19)  And he [Isaac] said:” Are you [really] my son Esau?”  And he said,  “It is I.” (Genesis 27:24).
 Who was he really? Jacob or Esau?  His originally uncomplicated, transparently simple personality, described as is tam, has been compromised by his cunning maneuverings, first to deprive his older brother of his birthright by exploiting his exhaustion, and then by his subterfuge to take for himself the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau.  The gentle, innocent Jacob, the sheltered homebody (lit: tent-dweller), had become indistinguishable from his brother the hunter, not hesitating to entrap his prey for his own benefit.
 A great Chasidic Master understood this aspect of Jacob’s personality when he commented that Jacob’s reply to Isaac: “I am your first born son Esau” should be taken literally.  Without being conscious of doing so, Jacob had uttered a profound truth about himself.  Who, indeed, was Jacob?  How did he perceive himself?  His disquieting dream revealed to him the two antithetical poles of his being, the split-state of his I-ness [anokhi].  He was a great spiritual force, symbolically etched on the Divine throne. Yet, at the same time, disowning this vital aspect of his being, he was motivated by utilitarian material concerns-primarily, successful physical survival.
 The resolution of Jacob’s psycho spiritual inner conflict was to occur many years later, and is probably the real meaning of his life and death struggle with the angel on the dark night of the soul prior to his terrifying confrontation with his soul. 
 Most of us, to a lesser or greater extent, share Jacob’s struggle.  We have all disowned aspects of our personality as a result of injuries we have suffered growing up, or as a consequence of what we have been taught.  Parts of us are repressed by fear, guilt or the influence of parents and teachers.  Like Jacob, we sometimes catch glimpses of who we are in dreams or in moments of crisis.  These flashes of awareness torment us with the realization that we do not really know which is our authentic I-ness [anokhi].  Because the resolution of this kind of inner, existential conflict is always challenging and often very painful, many of us are content to sleep our way through life, lying at the foot of the ladder that leads to greater awareness and to the attainment of our higher selves.  Tragically, like Jacob, at the time of his great dream, we are unaware of what we are missing when we have abandoned our quest for psychological and spiritual authenticity. 
 Ultimately, Jacob was fortunate.  A painful transformative encounter compelled him to integrate the various parts of his personality,  causing him to become a fully realized, but wounded individual.  It is a great shame that most of us fail to meet the challenge of integrating our disowned spiritual potential, and never quite realizing just how great we can be.              

Sunday, November 7, 2010



Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And Jacob approached his father Isaac.  And he felt him and said: “The voice [ha-kol] is the voice [kol] of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau  (Genesis 27:22).

The content of this verse is the elaborate subterfuge of Rebecca and Jacob.  Isaac’s wife, hearing that her husband intends to bless Esau, their first born, persuades the younger of the twins, Jacob, to masquerade as his brother. She hopes that the blind patriarch will be taken in by the ruse and bless Jacob.  The visually challenged Isaac is suspicious of the difference between what he hears and what he feels, and declares,” The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands the hands of Esau”.

The sages insist that every letter of the Torah is significant.  A Torah scroll that omits or adds a single letter is invalid, and may not be used.  The word  kol [voice], therefore, is problematic.  It appears twice in our text.  It is first written defectively, without the Hebrew letter vav.  It is then written in its complete form, with the Hebrew letter vav.   What, they ask, is the significance of this inconsistency.

The word kol when written without the letter vav, can be read as kal – light, weightless.  Therefore, Rabbi  Berekhyah said:  “When Jacob mutes his voice, the hands of Esau dominate” (Genesis Rabbah 65:34).  In other words, evil prevails when good people are silent and, conversely, wickedness is defeated when good people refuse to mute their voices.

 I should like to share a remarkable incident that recently took place at Cambridge University. Anti- Zionism is fashionable among the intellectual elite. British University faculty organizations have consistently pushed for the boycott of Israeli academics, disregarding the principles of academic freedom and the fruitful exchange of ideas.

 Cambridge University is the elite of the elite.  Its renowned debating society is the hallowed forum for the articulation of the opinions of this elite.  Very recently, it debated the motion that Israel is a rogue nation.  Given the prejudices of the British intelligentsia in general and of the Cambridge audience in particular, the outcome of the debate was a forgone conclusion.  It seemed scarcely to matter what either the supporters of the motion or its opponents might argue.  The condemnation of the Jewish State as a rogue nation would be close to unanimous.

Gabriel Latner was one of the speakers for the motion.  Prima facie, his task was simple and his victory assured.   Indeed, he indicated as much in his opening remarks, but said he would offer five arguments buttressing his conviction that Israel was clearly a rogue nation.

 Before doing so, however, he wished to clarify the motion by defining the word “rogue”.  Among the definitions of  “”rogue” in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary and other reliable sources were: unusual; unexpected with regard to time and place; anomalous and abhorrent.   He told his audience that, using these definitions he would argue in five ways for the motion.  I shall summarize four of those arguments. 

His first (and, I believe, least convincing) was statistical.  In the family of nations consisting of 195 Independent States, the statistical probability of the existence of a Jewish State is 0.00516%.   The probability of holding a winning lottery ticket is 0.17%.  This would be twice as likely as the probable existence of a Jewish State.  In this analysis the existence of such a State is itself anomalous, unusual and unexpected, and is, accordingly, rogue.

Secondly, he argued, Israel deserves to be condemned as a rogue nation on humanitarian grounds. The civilized world is aghast at the genocide in Darfur.  Many voices have been raised and there has been much breast beating about this contemporary evil.  So horrible is the situation that, fleeing for their lives, refuges from Darfur risk starvation, dehydration and death by sunstroke in the desert, en route to supposed safe haven with their fellow Muslims in Egypt.  There they are arrested, beaten and repatriated.  Only those who reach the borders of the rogue Sate of Israel are given shelter, food, and rehabilitation.  On the criterion of humanitarian activity, the response of the Jewish State to the Darfur genocide is a radical aberration from the behavior of all the Muslim members of the United Nations.  If unusual and unexpected define rogue, Israel is certainly a rogue nation.

Gabriel Latner adduced a third reason in support of the motion.  No other nation has offered to and actually negotiated with a leader of a terrorist organization with the blood of its citizens on his hands. Can you imagine for one moment that the President of the United States would offer safe passage, sit down at a table with and yield to the demands of Osama Bin Laden, the architect of the 911 terrorist outrage and numerous other acts of terror around the world?  And yet Israel sits and negotiates with Yasser Abed Rabbo, who headed one of the most radical terrorist organizations   and was responsible for the murder of hosts of innocent civilians.  Since this is unusual, unexpected behavior, Israel is surely a rogue nation. 

The final argument adduced by Mr. Latner relates to freedom.  Freedom House rates nations as free, partly free, and not free.  Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Myanmar and China are among the numerous nations rated not free.  One of the criteria used by Freedom House is freedom of expression.  Newspapers are regularly shut down and journalists imprisoned and sometimes tortured for their views in these countries.  Some even have so called “press courts” to impose sanctions on those who dare criticize official policies.  On this criterion, Israel is the only free nation in the Middle East.  It is certainly the only democratic country in the region.  It is in this respect, clearly aberrant.   A Middle Eastern country that protects the freedom of the critics of its policies and assures the freedom of religious minorities and gays and lesbians must surely be considered unusual and thus “rogue”. 

The reaction of the audience to Gabriel latner’s courageous challenge to the political correctness of British Academic Society’s anti Zionism was electrifying.  He received a standing ovation and the motion that Israel is a vogue nation was handily defeated.  Sadly, because he was prepared to raise his voice in articulate protest against prejudice, Gabriel Latner was banned for life from Cambridge Debating Union.  However, he demonstrated the truth of the midrashic insight: When the voice of Jacob is loud and clear, the hands of Esau do not prevail. 

This Rabbinic insight is a commanding imperative.  The voice of Jacob must never be muted.  Jews must protest against all evil, and their protests must be matched with action.  This is why we can be so proud of the work of Jewish World Service, which, single handedly, and almost totally alone has kept the cause of the victims of Darfur alive. 

It s also why the voice of Jacob should not be muted in the halls of Congress or in communications with the White House.  We must support the efforts of APAC   and take individual initiatives in articulating the cause of Israel wherever and whenever it is necessary for us to do so. 

Finally, we dare not mute our voices in confronting disturbing tendencies within the Jewish Community itself, fearlessly stating what we believe, even if those beliefs go against the stream.  Unless the voice of Jacob is loud and clear, we empower the hands of Esau when they are raised against us.  A courageous nineteen year old on a British campus had the courage to raise his voice in defense of his ideals.  Our text demands that we follow his example.


Friday, November 5, 2010



Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi




And Esau was forty-two years old when he took  as his wife Yehudit, the daughter of  Be’eri the Hittite and Bosnat, the daughter of Aylon the Hittite.   And they were a source of bitterness of spirit to Isaac and to Rebecca (Genesis 26:35-35).

The sages take note of the fact that, in our text, Isaac is mentioned before Rebecca.   Although this detail appears to be of no consequence in the unfolding of the narrative, the rabbis of the Midrash intuit a profound reason for Scripture’s having mentioned Esau’s father before his mother;

Why was Isaac [mentioned] first?  Surely because Rebecca was the daughter of pagan priests, she was not overly concerned by the odium of idolatry.   However, because he was the son of holy parents,, he [Isaac] was deeply distressed by the ugliness of paganism.  It is for this reason that Isaac was mentioned first [in the context of his son’s marrying into pagan families].  (Genesis Rabbah 68:4)

The noted psychiatrist and scion of a great Chassidic dynasty, Rabbi Abraham Twersky, understood the message of the text in terms of the dynamics of human character development.  Despite Rebecca’s personal antipathy to pagan practices, and not withstanding the fact that she had left her pagan environment no fewer than sixty years earlier, she was not nearly as dismayed as her husband was by Esau’s choice of wives.  Rebecca had been fully exposed to pagan practices and to the moral corruption of idolaters in her youth.  Because those practices had been the norm, she had become desensitized to their negative impact on those for whom it was a normal way of being. Put simply, the message of our text is that even the greatest of abominations lose their odium once we become accustomed to them.

Think back over your own experiences. I grew up in a society where foul language was taboo.  Before the publication Lady Chatterley’s Lover, sexually charged language did not appear in print, and was bleeped out on the broadcast media.  It could certainly not be heard on screen.  Children were chastised when they used vulgar language.  Sexual encounters in movies were implied, not enacted.  Nudity was taboo.  Words describing bodily functions were called bathroom language, and forbidden as expletives. 

When people were first exposed to “forbidden” words, the effect was jarring and they were horrified.  Such speech was not acceptable among decent, cultured and moral people.  But we are no longer shocked.  The taboos have disappeared.  Lovemaking is graphically depicted on screen and nudity has become the norm.  Parents are increasingly comfortable using what used to be called bathroom words when expressing anger and frustration.  The F word has entered the language and has even become synonymous with making mistakes. 

What would have shocked us only a few decades ago goes largely unnoticed nowadays.  Our constant exposure to things and practices previously abhorrent has desensitized us and anesthetized our sensibilities.  Scarcely anything shocks us anymore.  It is all old hat.  And our children, like Rebecca of old, have become acculturated to the lowest common denominators of the contemporary milieu.

The message of our text, however, goes beyond our attitude to language and sexuality.  Our generation has witnessed the erosion of a central Jewish norm.  When I was young, the reenactment of Esau’s experience, the choice of non-Jewish wives by Jewish men, was considered to be a tragedy, and was effectively never sanctioned- unless the women accepted Judaism.  But now the rate of marriage between Jews and gentiles is not significantly different from marriages between Jews.  The previously exceptional announcement of mixed marriages in the national press has become widespread.  Jewish spiritual leaders increasingly perform such marriages, even on the Sabbath, and bask in the glory of the attendant publicity they get.  I’m thinking, for example, of Chelsea Clinton’s widely publicized chuppah on a Shabbat afternoon.

There are many rationalizations for parents’ acceptance of this situation. One is:  “She/he is a fine human being”.  Another is: “After all, we eat in the same restaurants as they, enjoy the same entertainment, have the same education and are more like them than unlike”.  The most prevalent is: “As long as they are happy, why should we risk alienating them with our disapproval”?  Few will acknowledge the bitter truth: “No matter how much we would deny it, our values are more American than they are Jewish.”

The message of our text is not comfortable. It is a wake-up call to parents of impressionable children, alerting them to the ease with which exposure to alien values becomes part of their children’s spiritual and cultural make up.  The Torah seeks to make us conscious of what is Jewishly unacceptable. It warns us to be mindful of   the words we use, and of the long-term, very negative, effects on our families of tolerance of what is inappropriate.