Project Genesis


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,
Rutgersjx.com

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

Who are the Sages and Chazal?

Question: Who and what are the Jewish sages?

Answer: When we speak of our “Sages” we are referring to the great rabbis of previous generations. These rabbis were not like the rabbis of today. Today we have to struggle to understand the most simple of concepts. To the sages, the Torah was constantly on the forefront of their minds. They saw a piece of text, not as an isolated piece, but as a part of a bigger picture.

Throughout Jewish history there have been a number of rabbis who fall under the category of “sage.” They lived in times when mystical learning was part and parcel with understanding the basics of Jewish philosophy. In other words, the sages were not your normal, everyday rabbis of old. They were the rabbis who truly understood our oral and written traditions. They had a pure tradition and could see things about Judaism that others could not.

When asking about who they were specifically, we call them “Chazal.” This is an acronym for “Chachamim Zichronam Levracham.” This means, “Rabbis of blessed memory.” If you want a sample then Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the codifier of the Mishna is a great example, as well as Rabbi Akiva, whom you may have heard of.

Rabbi Gershon Litt

Laughter

Question: When Hagar and Ishmael are kicked out, it says Sarah saw Ishmael doing something, and uses the verb ‘zadi, chet, kuf’, the same used for idolatry at the golden calf incident, murder in II Samuel and adultery when Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph… it’s also the verb for laughter with Isaacs name comes from… how can it be used so liberally? The Torah also states that Isaac was named for Sarah’s laughter, almost immediately before and after the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, which is usually a red flag – right? The use of a word 3 times in a row?

Answer: Hi! I’ve become quite fascinated by your question. I agree with you completely – there clearly is a very important point being made by the repetition of this verb (tzachaq – let’s translate it roughly as “laughter”). There’s a lot to think about here, and I’ll just tell you some of what occurs to me.

The idea of laughter is not a simple one. I know that a number of learned tomes, including one by Freud, have been written to try to explain it. I guess, though, that laughter generally is a response to something incongruous, something that doesn’t fit the pattern we expect. 90-year-old women just don’t bear and nurse children! Here G-d is the one causing the “laughable” situation by doing something out of the realm of the normal rules. Here, laughter is beautiful – it’s a recognition of wonder.

At other times it is people who create the laughter, by ignoring the bounds of the real world. We would perhaps call that “scoffing”. That’s what a scoff-law does, when he shows contempt for the norms of society, treating terrible crimes (murder, idol worship, adultery) as nothing serious. I think that’s what Ishmael was doing. When everyone else was laughing in wonder at the great miracle that G-d had done, Ishmael, his feelings hurt and feeling pushed aside, was trying to mock it and dismiss it as not a big deal. Unfortunately, by doing that he marked himself as unable to continue as a part of the world Sarah and Abraham were building.

I don’t think the word “tzachaq” itself carries a wide variety of meanings. Its very specific meaning does have many different uses, though, some good and some bad. Everything is like that; the world is complex, and things can be used or abused.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

The Concept of Angels

Filed under: G-d and Torah

Question: Could you please help me to find out about the meaning of angels?

Answer: Hi, Thanks for asking a fantastic question. The concept of angels in Judaism is very different than in other religions. I always start out by asking a person to describe to me what they think an angel looks like. The typical answer is something to do with a halo, white body, wings, and they are usually women or children. That is nothing like an angel according to Jewish tradition.

One example of angels in the Torah is with Abraham. There were three men who came to visit Abraham three days after his self inflicted ritual circumcision. His house was known to be open to strangers and guests, but it wasn’t the best time for company. Abraham, however, had Sara prepare a meal for them, washed their feet, and treated them like kings. These people, according to some of our commentators, were angels of G-d.

In the physical world, G-d can send angels as messengers, but they have a specific mission and cannot deviate from it. They have no free will. Angels are static and are controlled by G-d. From a spiritual perspective, angels, or Melachim in Hebrew, are white spiritual beings with one bottom (they have no legs) and exist for G-d to give them spiritual tasks. The Torah says in Genesis, “Let us make man.” We understand that to mean that G-d consulted with the spiritual powers and created the world. The angelic world is very complex.

If you are interested in further reading on the subject I highly suggest you get a book entitled, “The Way of G-d,” by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato.

Thanks, Rabbi Litt

 


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