Project Genesis

Asnas, Shimon and Dinah

Question: In the last part of Genesis we find that Asnas married Yosef HaTzadik and our Rabbai told us that she was a jewish and Dinah’s daughter. How did Asnas come to Egypt? Wasn’t Dinah married to Shechem? We find inVayigash that Shimon had a son named Saul a Caananite, from Shimon and Dinah. How do we understand this?

Answer: The opinion that Asnat was Dinah’s daughter is brought by the Targum Yonatan. It is possible that her father was Shechem or perhaps Shimon who married Dinah after the whole incident. It’s not explained how she might have gotten to Egypt but one can imagine it happening. Perhaps she was kidnapped and sold to the Egyptians. It is certainly possible that G-d engineered this to teach a lesson to the children of Leah as to what they did to Yosef now happening to one of theirs (a daughter of Shimon and Dina, both children of Leah).

As to how it was permitted for Shimon to marry Dinah. It is clear that before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the 613 mitzvot were known but not codified. So that is why you see that Yaakov married two sisters and Shimon married Dinah. The Jews knew the spiritual impact of each mitzvah and did them based on that knowledge, but sometimes they understood through their deep spiritual connection that a particular mitzvah may not apply to them at a particular time (See Nefesh Hachaim about this).

This only held true until Sinai. Once the Torah was formally given and we entered a covenant and marriage with G-d, every Jew must observe the mitzvos even if s/he thinks that it may not apply to them or whatever reason they may think.

—Rabbi Meir Goldberg,

The Evolution of Jewish Law

Question: Can I have an introduction to the great works of Halachah (Jewish Law) and their authors. For example Mishneh Torah, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, and Mishnah Berurah?

Answer: Moshe received the Torah at Sinai, both the Written Law and the Oral Law. These are both considered to be from G-d and immutable. The Written Law is the Chumash, the Oral Law was transmitted from generation to generation, and studied and learnt by thousands of Rabbis and students in each generation.

In addition we have Rabbinic laws, most of which were enacted by the Men of the Great Assembly (at the beginning of the Second Temple era), though the earliest Rabbinic laws are from Moshe himself, and the latest are from the Mishnaic period.

This Oral tradition was written down by Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi in about 200ce in the Mishna. 300 years later additional material and commentary was compiled by Ravina and Rav Ashi in the Talmud (or gemara). The Rambam writes in his introduction to Mishna that no later authorities may argue on the Talmud since this was accepted by all of Klal Yisrael as binding. It is the Talmud that forms the main basis of Halacha. (more…)

Jacob’s Fight with the Angel

Question: All of these questions bothered me for years. I tried looking in the commentaries with no great success…

Answer: I think your questions are wonderful, and I have struggled with (some of) them too. All I can do is to share some of my own thoughts; maybe you have more of your own. I’ve rearranged some of the questions.

Question:Why did Yaakov (Jacob) call the angel ‘elohim’? We don’t believe Gd would be incarnated in a human body Why did Yaakov name the place Peniel? If this is only a revelation of certain particular aspect of Gdliness, which aspect was it?

Answer: Elohim is a generic term in the Torah and Tanach for someone very powerful (see, for instance, Genesis 6(2) for princes and Exodus 22(7-8) for judges). So too for the name El.

Question: Did Yaakov know that the “man” he was fighting was an angel? Why is he called a man if clearly he is not?

Answer: I think this is the norm. Throughout Tanach (scripture), angels appear as human beings in prophetic visions, and are called “men”. Given that the Rambam (Maimonides) says that they are non-physical, this must be part of how the vision is presented to the prophet. Maybe it’s because as human beings, we expect to speak with other human beings.

Question: What lessons are we supposed to draw from Yaakov’s struggle if we aren’t told the purpose or the reason this fight took place? Did Yaakov know what the fight was about? Why aren’t we told what was the purpose of this fight?

Answer: He seems to have understood the fight better than I do! But it’s again very normal for prophetic visions in Tanach that the prophet doesn’t understand clearly what’s happening, at least at the beginning. Part of the vision is sorting this out. A very clear example is the story of Samson’s parents in Judges 13; they don’t seem to realize that it’s a prophetic vision till it’s all over. See also the meeting of Yosef and “the man” who sends him on the way to his brothers.

The truth is that there is a class of parts of the Torah which are very hard to read. Exodus 4, the story of the attack on Moshe as he returns to Egypt, is a really extreme example. I find it close to unreadable, and I can testify that my Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yaakov Weinberg z”l said that it is the hardest section in the Torah. But see also Exodus 33-34, where G-d reveals himself to Moshe, and tells him that “His face cannot be seen”. Rashi’s commentary explanations of the dialogue there are very difficult, with some questions following their answers. And the Ramban’s commentary says that that section has no simple reading.

These kinds of sections refer to connections between man and the divine, and all of them are really tough. Could be most of us “don’t know the math to follow nuclear physics”, if you know what I mean.

Here too in our story. My friend Rabbi David Fohrman had a very interesting observation: This section has almost no indications of which side is which. “He saw that he wasn’t able against him, and he touched him on the hollow of the thigh;” – who? “And the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was wrenched” – Oh! Now we backtrack – So that means that the angel was the one who wasn’t able, and Yaakov was winning…

“He said to him, ‘Let me go, for the morning has risen.’ He answered, ‘I will not let you go, until you bless me.’ He said to him, ‘What is your name?” – who? “He said, Yaakov”. – Oh! So that means that the angel was the one who asked to be let go, and Yaakov is the one who asked for the blessing…

It’s all very remarkable. The identities of the two participants are blurred for most of the story. Perhaps that is why our sages saw this as principally a struggle between Yaakov and part of himself, against the yetzer hara. He was proving himself spiritually worthy to build the nation of Israel.

Question: Why would Yaakov accept a new name – Yisrael – from his enemy? Perhaps it wasn’t an enemy after all? How do the commentaries know it was Esau’s angel? Why did he ask an enemy for a blessing? What exactly was the blessing?

Answer: Maybe I should just stay with what I wrote already – these are good questions. But briefly: our sages say that Yaakov and Esav divided the universe in the womb – Esav got this world, Yaakov got the next. That says to me that Yaakov on some level represents the spiritual, and Esav (man of the field) represents the physical. I assume that the same is true for Esav’s “guardian angel”. This blessing, which Yaakov has been working to get and to earn his whole life, somehow represents Esav’s buy-in to the way the world is supposed to be run: the physical in service to the spiritual. And Yaakov is worthy to represent that. G-d will give Yaakov the same name a little bit later, but Esav needs to acknowledge it for the blessing to be complete.

Question: How come the angel didn’t know Yaakov’s name? Wasnt he sent by Gd test Yaakov?

Answer: I thought the question was rhetorical: he needed Yaakov to give his old name, and he would give him an upgrade.

Question: Can an angel bless anyone without being commanded by Hashem? Why would it matter to an angel if the night ends? Especially if he was Gd’s messenger?

Answer: Rashi says that the angel had to “sing shirah”, songs to Gd, in the morning. Rav Gedalia Schorr z”l has a fascinating explanation of this. He asks, was it just bad luck for the angel that his turn came up just as Yaakov was holding him prisoner? Seems kind of silly. But what’s actually happening is that this angel fulfilled his purpose for the first time in history. His job is to test mankind, to help us grow to greatness by struggling against him. Yaakov was the first person who won. That’s why the angel wanted to sing shirah: for the first time, he had fulfilled his purpose and his destiny.

And of course the angel could never bless anyone without Hashem’s command. It’s just that he has an unusual job: he’s the one who tests us. Occasionally, he gets to give out a diploma. (See also the first chapter of Job, where the Heavenly Hosts assemble before G-d – and the Accusing Angel is among them.)

Question: Why is the word “tzela” understood as a vein? or a tendon while in the portion of Bereishis its translated as “rib”?

Answer: This question is a little confusing. The vein or tendon is called “gid”, which always means something like tendon. “Tzoleya” here refers to Yaakov limping on his side, and indeed “tzela” always means “side”. See, for instance, numerous references in Exodus 26 to “tzela hamishkan”, the side of the mishkan.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Midrash and Laban Wanted to Destroy Us

Question: I once heard that many Midrashim were actually written down with political situations of the time in mind and are not just ‘fairy tales’ if you will. My question is what was the political or cultural background behind the paragraph of “Tzay U’lmad” (Lavan the Aramean), in the Pesach Haggadah, found right after the paragraph of “Ve’he She’amda.” I heard that it had something to do with Egypt controlling Israel in the second century BCE but I am not sure if this is accurate information.

Answer: Hi! Thank you for your interesting question.

“Many Midrashim were actually written down with political situations of the time in mind and are not just ‘fairy tales’.”

I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to answer the question the way you asked it; for that you will have to seek elsewhere. I do not believe that Midrashim had political situations in mind, nor do I believe that they are fairy tales. The Midrashim are part of our understanding of the deeper meanings of the Torah. They are often presented in parable form, but it is still for us to try to plumb the depths that they present.

Since you mentioned the Midrash of “tzei ul’mad”, I began to think about what it is trying to convey. I hope you’ll forgive me if I give you some of my impressions, though it is not what you requested.

The Midrash says that in every generation, our enemies rise up to destroy us. As evidence, it brings the case of Lavan, and says that Pharaoh only wanted to destroy the boys, but Lavan tried to uproot all.

Question: Where do we see that Lavan wanted to do that? We could read all of Parshas Vayeitzei and not know it. You see that we can be quite unaware of what our enemies are planning for us.

A more careful reading of Parshas Vayeitzei might give us an answer. Lavan may not have planned to actually kill us. His plan was to “uproot us” from our status: To enslave us, to make us part of his possessions. When Ya’akov was making him wealthy, he was happy. Whenever Ya’akov tried to actually leave, though, he found a way to stop him. He knew that Ya’akov was the source of his success! “I have divined it: G-d has blessed me on your behalf!”

Listen to his later words to Ya’akov, after Ya’akov claims that everything he has was honestly earned, that not a single penny of Lavan’s is in his possession. Lavan doesn’t quite agree: “[No!] The daughters are my daughters, the sons are my sons, the flocks are my flocks, and everything that you see is mine!”

You have to hand it to the man; he didn’t think small. If he would have his way, there would be no people Israel. They would be his possessions instead. He knew they were the source of blessing; all the blessings of the world would come to him – through them.

Our sages are not saying that every non-Jew has such an attitude; of course, they don’t. They are saying that this is one of the possible approaches that the non-Jewish world may use to deal with G-d’s nation.

See the Midrash that describes the three advisors of Pharaoh: Bil’am, Yisro, and Iyov. Each of them represents a different approach to dealing with the “Jewish problem”. Egypt didn’t only listen to Bil’am – there were earlier periods where it was closer to the other two approaches. Only at the end did it chose Bil’am’s approach – and that led to its destruction. [And see the Targum Yerushalmi on Parshas Balak, that says that Bil’am was the same as Lavan. They represent the same attitude.]

There will always be some that choose his approach, and be they known or unknown we will always need G-d’s help against them.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

All About Reuben, Jacob’s Son

Question: Our grandson will be named Reuven at his Circumcision on Friday. Please give me some information about Jacob’s son, Reuben. I do not believe there are any other Reubens in the Bible. Is this correct? I graduated from a day school and I do attend Shabbat services every week, so I am looking more for commentary than written text.

Answer: The Rabbis say that the name Reuvain is an acronym for the Hebrew words “Reuh Bain”, which means “see what is between.” In other words, Reuben’s mother Leah named him prophetically saying, “See the difference between my son and my father-in-law’s son.” Her Father-in-Law son, Esau, was jealous of his bother Jacob for taking the rights of the first born. Reuben, on the other hand, was not jealous when Joseph was awarded the rights of the first born by Jacob. (Joseph was Rachel’s first born while Reuben was Leah’s first born. Rachel was Jacob’s primary wife.) This lack of jealousy was displayed when Reuben suggested to his brothers that they shouldn’t kill Joseph and had them temporarily leave him in a pit. This was all part of his attmempt to save him from the brothers. Obviously Leah didn’t know all of this at the time of birth but rather had a prophecy without having a clear understanding at the time of what it would be.

Reuben also switched Jacob’s bed from Bilha’s tent to Leah’s, after Rachel died. The Torah says that he slept with Bilhah, but the Rabbis of the Talmud explain that they didn’t have actual relations. Rather, Reuben’s switching of Jacob’s bed was akin to disturbing his intimate life. The Rabbis say that Reuben wasn’t wrong in what he did. He felt that while Rachel may be more important in the marriage than Leah, Rachel’s maiden Bilhah shouldn’t be. He was defending Leah’s honor. Thus he wasn’t sinful.

Rabbi Meir Goldberg,

Age of Rachel

Question: How old was Rachel when Jacob first met her? When they were married? When she died?

Answer: Seder Olam Rabbah 74:4 says that Rachel was 22 when she married Yaakov (Jacob), and this seems to be the primary opinion, although I have seen one source suggest that Rachel was 5 when they met making her 12 at the time of marriage. Rachel and Leah were twin sisters. Jacob married Leah and Rachel a week apart although he worked 7 years for each of them.

Rachel died at age 36. Remember that the marriages of all the Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs were arranged and designed by G-d in order to create the Jewish Nation that would be coming. The Patriarchs were also prophets and had great insight into their mission in this world and what G-d was expecting from them.

Regards, Eliahu Levenson

“And Jacob Kissed Rachel”

Question: When Jacob met Rachel by the well, he kissed her and told her who he was (Genesis 29:11-12). I understand that our forefathers kept all of the commandments. How could Jacob be involved in an act that seems so immodest?

Answer: I too was (and to some extent remain) troubled by Jacob’s kiss of Rachel. It seems difficult to reconcile the incongruity of Jacob, our holy forefather, kissing a single young woman—even one destined to be his wife.

I believe there are a number of angles to addressing this question:

Indeed, as you mention, our Sages note that our forefathers kept the entire Torah. However, it seems that there was a fundamental difference in Torah observance between before and after it was given on Mount Sinai. Once the Torah was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, the act became more important than the intent. Meaning, that even if someone today believes with all his might that the best way for him to serve God would be to transgress a commandment, the “act” takes precedence, and thus one may not abrogate even one iota from the Torah—no matter how holy one’s intentions. However, before the Torah was formally given to the Jewish people, the intention, at times, superseded the act. In other words, if a forefather (who, obviously, lived prior to the Sinaitic experience) believed that his mission necessitated the transgression of a commandment, he could use his discretion, albeit sparingly, to violate the law. In reality, it was not a violation of the law, for the intent became the law in such an instance. Thus, it may be understood that Jacob’s kissing of Rachel was in some way part of his Divine service.  (more…)

Age of Rebecca at Marriage

Question: Where is the Rashi that says that Rivka (Rebecca) was 3 years old when she married Yitzchak? This commentary does not sit very well with me. How can a girl of 3 years old have poured out all those heavy jugs of water for those camels and Eliezer?

Answer: The Rashi is found in Genesis 25:20. This is the Midrash; there are other opinions on how old she was. In the simple reading she would have been considerably older. People married very young in those days, but not that young… But the Midrash treats her as someone with extraordinary abilities, which of course she was.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Eliezer’s Repeated Story

Question: In the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah the story of Eliezer and Rivkah (Rebecca) is written twice. What are the differences and why is Eliezer’s name not mentioned?

Answer: Hi! Thank you for these interesting and important questions, which I struggle with as well; I can only offer suggestions.

The story of Eliezer and Rivka isn’t really told twice. Things are described once as they happen, then again when Eliezer reports them to Rivka’s family. The Torah is including the full transcript of Eliezer’s report.

The Torah can’t usually write out every single event that happens. It picks out the very most important points. The Torah has a different way that it usually uses to fill in the details; it’s called the Oral Torah, or the Midrash. The story could have been very brief in the Written Torah, with all the other details left for the Midrash.

G-d chose not to write Eliezer’s story that way. Our sages say, Even the casual conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs are better than the Torah of their children. Apparently these details are very precious. Eliezer was an extremely important person. I expect that is because Abraham was an extremely important person, and Eliezer made himself a central part of Abraham’s life.

As to the differences between the two accounts, you have to look at them one at a time. Some may have to do with Eliezer’s purposes in how best to present things to Rivka’s family. Others might have to do with Eliezer’s own attitude toward things. There are commentaries that discuss various differences.

It is really interesting that Eliezer’s name isn’t mentioned. I’m assuming it has to do with his total commitment to his master’s goals. He is always called either the “servant of Avraham” or “the man” (it’s also interesting to see which one he is called when). Note that he even repeatedly calls G-d himself “Hashem – the G-d of my master Abraham”.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

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