“Come together, right now, over me!” This Beatles lyric might be familiar to some, but what does it mean to come together? What does it truly look like? The Chassidic master Shalom Noach Berezovsky, the “Netivot Shalom” teaches us that throughout all of the people of Israel’s journeying, when the Torah talks about the places to which they traveled and the places in which they camped, a plural verb is used: They camped, they journeyed, etc. However, when Israel camps next to Mount Sinai, the text says, “vayichon sham Yisrael neged hahar (Exodus 19:2),” “And Israel (singular) camped in front of the mountain.”
בַּחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֔י לְצֵ֥את בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה בָּ֖אוּ מִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי׃
וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃
19:1. In the third month, when the people of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.
19:2. For they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the desert of Sinai, and had camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount.
The Ten Commandments are also written in singular form. Some commentators explain that this is because each person heard the Ten Commandments addressed to her/himself alone, in a way that that specific person could hear, understand, and internalize.
The Netivot Shalom offers us another explanation. He says that at the moment that the people camped at Mount Sinai and prepared for the giving of the Torah, they became, “b’lev echad k’ish echad,” “of one heart as one person.” They had joined their hearts and their souls together to become one. Not only that, each and every Israelite had to be there in order for that one heart, that one person, to be complete. Judaism comes alive when we celebrate it in community. It is only in gathering together that we can reach our fullest potential.
The Netivot Shalom usually likes to tie his teachings to Shabbat in some way, and this teaching is no exception. In this parashah we get the 4th commandment, to remember the 7th Day. Later on in the book of Shemot, it says,
וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כׇּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃ שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ תֵּעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ שַׁבַּ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן לַה׳
“And Moses gathered the assembly of the people of Israel together and said to them, ‘these are the things which God has commanded you to do: for six days you shall work and the seventh day shall be for you a holy rest…” (Exodus 35:1-2)
The question is what are we supposed to actually do? This quote makes it seem as though Shabbat is just about refraining from doing. Rather, the Netivot Shalom says that what we are supposed to do is to follow Moses’s example and gather the people. When we gather together in communities and congregations, that is how we deepen the holiness of Shabbat.
After the events of last Shabbat in Colleyville, it seems even more daunting and dangerous to come together in community. But even in the face of that trauma, there are so many ways that we can connect and be together, support each other and “come together”. As we enter into Shabbat this week, I invite you to think about and discuss with your family the following questions:
May we see each other and gather and pray together again soon
by Rabbi Alex Freedman
There’s a funny Israeli commercial that shows Moses and the Israelites lost in the
desert. They kvetch. They complain. They pester. Then behold! A miracle! A great ball
of fire descends earthward, and when the ashes disappear, Moses cradles this gift from
G-d. Is it Manna from heaven? No, it’s better. It’s a GPS with an arrow pointing toward
the Promised Land.
Humor aside, the video raises a serious question. If the path from Egypt to Israel –
slavery to freedom – was straightforward, why did they opt for the roundabout road
instead of the shortcut?
This week’s Torah reading, describing the action of the Exodus as it happens, tells us
that G-d sent them on the long path even though there was a shorter alternative.
Perhaps the people would reconsider when they saw war and return to Egypt. In other
words, says Rashi, if they were so quick to reach Israel, they might be just as quick to
leave Israel. Maimonides writes: “G-d wanted to accustom them to hardship, to prepare
them for the task of conquering and settling Canaan.”
In the short term, this took longer. But in the long term, it was a worthwhile investment.
Here is my favorite answer, which connects to one of the best stories in the Talmud
(Eruvin 53b). Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Hananyah was traveling and met a kid at an
intersection. He asked the kid which way to the city. The boy answered, “This way is
short but long, while that way is long but short.” The rabbi started on the ‘short but long’
way but hit a dead end with gardens and orchards. Forced to turn around, he asked the
boy, “Didn’t you tell me this was the short way?” The boy answered, “Didn’t I say it was
This story teaches us that sometimes shortcuts end up taking longer because we may
hit a dead end. And that sometimes the long path is better because it’s slow and steady.
One example – ironic because it deals with roads – is that sometimes the nearest DMV
location is so backed up with lines that it’s faster if you shlep out to a farther one. I had
to do that in New Jersey.
But this advice is sage when it comes to life journeys as well.
One of the best decisions I ever made was taking a gap year after high school. I spent
the year in Israel on a program called Nativ. When I got to college I was a year older
than everyone…but also a year more mature. I was more sure of who I was, what I
wanted to study, how I wanted to spend my time. I made better use of my time in
college because of that year in Israel. The longer path was better for me, even if my
roommates called me Grandpa.
Hurdles and pitfalls faced the Jews of the Exodus beginning the march to freedom
thousands of years ago… and us today. We each face challenges and choices. There is
not enough time for everything. In our work, in our relationships, in our family, we are
constantly asking ourselves, how much time should I spend on this? Should I take the
long road or look for a shortcut?
I think the Torah and the Talmud remind us of something we know in our heads but is
difficult to do with our hands: focus on the long term as much as the short term. For the
long path is today’s investment in tomorrow.
Maybe that’s why people have two eyes: one to focus on today, the other for the future.
That’s the long and short of it.
by Rabbi Michael Schwab
For hundreds of years the Israelites have been enslaved. In our parsha this week, Bo, they are finally set free. For sure this is a moment of great celebration — the Israelites have finally gotten what they wished for over the course of so many generations. Interestingly though, the Torah does not initially speak about the Exodus in a primarily joyous context. We will have to wait for the next parshah for that after the splitting of the sea. Instead, our parsha speaks immediately about how this incredible event in the history of our people should be remembered and made sacred in the future. As the Torah transitions, “ (41) It was at the end of 430 years . . . that all of the hosts of the Lord departed from Egypt . . . (42) it is a night of vigilance of the Lord . . . (43) The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, this is the state of the Pascal lamb . . .” Almost immediately after describing the Israelites finally leaving Egypt the Torah transitions to describing the Passover holiday that will be celebrated by future generations and concludes the Torah portion on this subject alone.
What is the message here? Why state the unbelievable fact of the Exodus and go right into speaking about the holiday of Passover? I believe that the Torah is reminding us that when something life-changing occurs, we should not only celebrate it in the moment but find a way to incorporate the meaning behind what has occurred into the rest of our lives. A joyous celebration would be welcome and appropriate but that celebration will end and life will move forward. The question is whether the wonderful turn of events will change the way you live moving forward and be appreciated in the future. By immediately marking the miracle of the Exodus with a sacred ritual that will be observed for all time, the Israeilites will be able to take their appreciation for what occurred, as well as the lessons they learned, well into the future and even pass them on to future generations.
Thus the Torah gives us an important perspective on how to view such events in our own lives. And what is more, the Torah teaches us that we should appreciate the great gift that sacred ritual gives to us, which allows us to re-live the great lessons and miracles of our ancestors each and every year.
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler
In this week’s parasha Va’eira we read of the first five plagues brought down upon Egypt. Who needs Christmas in July when we can have the Passover Story in December, right? With each plague, we get closer to redemption, and yet we simultaneously read that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. I’ve always found this really troubling. Far be it from me to limit G-d’s ability, but how can I fully blame Pharaoh for our suffering if it was G-d that hardened his heart? As one who dabbles in creative writing, I understand that I’ve allowed and even encouraged poor behavior of my characters in order to illustrate a lesson or build the conflict–it wouldn’t be a compelling narrative if it was all easy. However, in the grand story of life, and the story of our people, can I dare to hold the Author accountable?
It’s a reasonable question, and none of us are inherently heretics for asking it. Maybe it was a necessary step in solidifying the faith in G-d as our redeemer. Maybe it was all part of the divine recompense due for years of slavery that occurred prior to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. I’m actually less concerned with why G-d did that, and more interested in whether G-d still does it from time to time.
Has G-d hardened my heart? Or yours? Did we know when it was happening? How did it affect us? And, as someone who believes in free will, could we have refused?
Reading about the plagues hits differently than it used to. Now that we’ve spent nearly 2 years in a plague of our own, I’ve had some difficult questions. Is this a divine punishment? Do I really believe in that? What did we do, and how can we fix it? Is this meant to teach us something? Did we learn it? Have we forgotten the lesson already? And how are our hearts doing? Are they hardened by a stubborn desire to return to normal? I know folks who are so done with masks, but with a new variant that spreads quickly, we simply aren’t done yet. I know folks who won’t get vaccinated. Have their hearts been hardened by systems that leave them unable to trust in institutions?
And perhaps I’m optimistic, but maybe this is just how redemption works. Maybe these challenging times–these plagues–are meant to give us a needed shift in perspective that only radical change can provide. And some of us will pivot, and grow, and be redeemed. Others will harden their hearts, and let the sea consume them. My prayer for all of us as we continue navigating this plague, is that we continue to reflect on the world around us, allow our hearts to remain soft and open, and do everything we can to be G-d’s partner in the redemption that surely awaits us on the other side of this pandemic.
by Hazzan Barbara Barnett
Today is the winter solstice. The day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the calendar year—the longest, darkest night. As I stood this morning above the shore, as I often do, to capture the sunrise on my camera, it struck me—this profound interplay of light and dark, of day and night, of water and sky. Not quite day, not quite night. The moment of creation—a new day is born. In the days and weeks ahead, minute by minute we will inch into the light—earlier in the morning and lasting later into the evening.
It impossible not to be awed by the power of this moment, which unfolds each day—mundane in one sense, but far from it in appreciation and “wow” of observing the sun creep over the water, this morning a magenta-red impossible to capture in the limitation of the camera lens, much like the impossibility of capturing so much of the brilliance of G-d’s creation: the mountains, the glaciers, the sea, a thunderstorm, a rainbow. They must be experienced first-hand—no photograph (no matter how many filters or wizardry I might employ in trying) come close.
I imagine as we cross from the promise of the end of book of Genesis, finished last Shabbat into the shadows of the early chapters of Exodus, which we begin this Shabbat. Rescued from famine and settled in Egypt, reconciled with Joseph, the B’nai Yisrael conclude Act I of our story with great promise in the land of Goshen. But where the story picks up four centuries later, there “arose in Egypt a new Pharoah who did not know Joseph.” Our ancestors are in their darkest days without even the barest glimmer of light, of hope as they cry out to G-d from within the depths of slavery.
Moses, having fled from Egypt, tends sheep, far afield from prince of Egypt he had been and equally far from the leader he will become later in the story (I’m sure I’m not divulging any big spoilers here!). Moses is distracted as he tends to his sheep, caught by the sight of the bright, inexplicable light of a bush afire, burning, yet not consumed by the blaze.
From within the brightness and the flame emerges G-d’s voice calling upon Moses to be his partner in freeing the B’nai Yisrael from the horror of slavery. For Moses to come—reluctant as he is, unqualified as he believes himself to be—from the shadows and shepherd his people to freedom. Bring them from the darkest day and into dawn of freedom.
Rabbi Alex Freedman
On Friday nights, Jewish parents bless their girls that they should be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. OK, that makes sense because these are our Matriarchs.But what’s the story with the boys?We would expect to invoke the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But that’s notwhat we say. Instead we speak about two men we don’t know much about at all – Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menasheh. What do these two – who were born and raised in Egypt – have that the illustrious Avot (Patriarchs) do not? The Etz Hayim Humash commentary offers two possibilities.
1. They were the first children to maintain their Jewish identity in a foreign land, as the earlier generations all lived in Israel. These two spent their life in Egypt, but nonethelessfelt a connection to being Jewish and continued the traditions onward. For diaspora communities throughout history, this was an inspiring model. If Ephraim and Menasheh could do it, we can do it too.
2. These were the first brothers to get along peacefully. Most unfortunately, it took many generations to see siblings who were not rivals. Cain and Abel’s relationship ended in murder. Isaac and Ishmael’s ended in banishment. While Jacob and Esau reconciled as adults, for many years Esau wanted his brother dead for stealing his father’s blessing. Joseph’s brothers left him to die in a pit before making a shekel while selling him down to Egypt. By contrast, since Ephraim and Menasheh had no strife between them, this was great progress! Even when Jacob switched the birth order and gave preference to the younger over the older, they still did not go after each other.
For our children and ourselves, let’s not aim for fame or notoriety, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, let’s aim for peace and harmony within our families and our world. Let’s aim to be like Ephraim and Menasheh.
by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky
You may have noticed that there’s a lot of crying in this week’s Torah portion. Most of it is coming from Joseph. In fact some commentators call Joseph “ba’al bechi,” “the master cryer.” And they are in awe of Joseph for how expressive he is with his feelings. And there is one particular instance that sticks out that the commentators focus on. It is when Joseph first reveals himself to his brothers and he and his brother Benjamin embrace for the first time.
וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוְּארֵי בִנְיָמִן אָחִיו וַיֵּבְךְּ וּבִנְיָמִן בָּכָה עַל צַוָּארָיו
And he fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept as well.
They’re weeping tears of joy at being reunited, but also tears of sadness for all that they have lost and for all that they have missed. Rashi gives what seems like a strange commentary to this verse. He says that Joseph is weeping for the two temples that will be destroyed that will be in Benjamin’s future territory, and that Benjamin is weeping for the Mishkan in Shiloh that will be destroyed that will be in Joseph’s future territory.
And the rabbis are confused by this! Reb Yechezkel of Kozimir says, “This doesn’t make any sense! At a time of reunification and brotherhood, why would they be crying about these things that will happen in the future? And all the more so, why are they crying about these things that won’t even be happening to them, but will be happening in a territory that is inhabited by the other one’s tribe?” And the answer is this. Benjamin and Joseph knew that the reason that they were separated by their brothers was because of Sin’at Chinam, senseless hatred. They saw the future destructions that would befall the Jewish people, and knew that these also would be because of senseless hatred. It is for this reason that they wept.
As I thought about this beautiful idea, I noticed yet again the words from the Psalms in our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy: “Ohavei Adonai Sin’u Ra,” “Those who love the Divine, hate evil.” And this is what it is talking about. In a world of increasing divisiveness, it is so important that we recognize hatred and call it out. Joseph and Benjamin give us the answer to hatred. It is embrace. It is love. It is holding each other and crying together. If we can be true in our hearts, we can bring more light and joy to this world. Or zarua latzadik ul’yishrei lev simchah. Light is planted through righteousness, and joy comes to those who are true of heart. This can only happen together. It can only happen with love.
by Rabbi Michael Schwab
Hanukkah is one of my favorite holidays, though not solely for the reasons most people would guess. Yes, I enjoy latkes, sufganiyot (donuts), dreidel and gifts. However what I love most is the lighting of the Hanukkiah, both the experience of kindling lights together with blessings and song, as well as the symbolic message the act of lighting represents.
Hanukkah is celebrated as a holiday of joy specifically and purposefully at the darkest time of the year. As well, the historic aspect of the holiday celebrates the victory of our people and our tradition during one of the darkest times of our existence. Therefore, the lighting of the candles on Hanukkah is both literally and figuratively about bringing light to the darkness and hope to the despondent.
Light, in Judaism (and in many other cultures), is linked to many wonderful qualities. Light reveals what is hidden, allowing us to discover truths and treasures that would have otherwise remained obscured and hidden. Light guides us like a beacon in the night, or a flashlight which can illuminate the path so we can move forward safely and with confidence. Light draws us near, providing a rallying point with its brightness and warmth. And light dispels darkness, keeping what is threatening at bay while illuminating the blessings that constantly surround us.
On Hanukkah we each get a chance to kindle light. The unique Jewish law is that lighting should be done by each person and should ideally be done at home. We are not to rely on representatives, or other exalted leaders, to kindle for us. We do not have to go to a designated special place to do it. The message is that all of us have the power to bring light into the world and doing so starts at home. Hanukkah celebrates the spiritual fact that we each have light to share and that the world needs all of our individual lights to thrive.
What is more, just think about the way we light our candles. We do not take a match to the Hanukkah candles themselves. We first light a shamsah, the facilitator candle that lights all of the others. The symbolic meaning of the use of the shamash is that we are to see ourselves as not only possessing the power to bring our own light to the world but that we also possess the power to ignite the light of others.
So, as we light our Hanukkiah this Hanukkah, let us remember our mission to bring light to darkness and be inspired to know that we each have a role in sharing hope and goodness in the world, as well as the ability to inspire so many others to do the same. In that way we truly celebrate the Festival of Lights. Happy Hanukkah!
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler
This week we read from parashat Vayeshev which begins and ends with dreams. A 17-year-old Joseph, donned in his signature technicolor coat, begins sharing his dreams with his resentful brothers. In his first dream all his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bow to Joseph’s sheaf. And in his second dream, he sees the famous 11 stars (referenced in the passover song, “Who Knows One?”) as well as the sun and moon bowing to his star. The brothers’ resentment grows into full hatred of Joseph, setting in motion a plot to get rid of him. In the end, Joseph ends up in a jail cell in Egypt, where he interprets with uncanny accuracy the dreams of a cupbearer and baker.
I’ve always been really fascinated with dreams. They seem to be one of life’s unsolvable mysteries. The Rabbis of the Talmud are also quite divided regarding the nature, significance and veracity of dreams.The Gemara relates: Shmuel, when he would see a bad dream, would say: “And the dreams speak falsely” (Zechariah 10:2). When he would see a good dream, he would say: And do dreams speak falsely? Isn’t it written: “I speak with him in a dream” (Numbers 12:6)? This apparent contradiction is resolved by Rava who states, there are different kinds of dreams.
It is said that dreams are one sixtieth (1/60) prophecy. It is written with regard to the verse: “The prophet that has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that has My word, let him speak My word faithfully. What has the straw to do with the grain? says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:28), the Gemara asks: What do straw and grain have to do with a dream? Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai: Just as it is impossible for the grain to grow without straw, so too it is impossible to dream without idle matters. In this approach we see that even a dream that will be fulfilled in the future contains some elements of nonsense. The Rabbis use Joseph’s dream of the 11 stars, sun and moon to illustrate this point. The moon represents Joseph’s mother, who had already passed away. The dream was fulfilled, but not in its entirety.
Elsewhere, Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: A person is shown in his dream only the thoughts of his heart, evidenced by what Daniel, the other great dream interpreter, said to Nebuchadnezzar, as it is stated: “As for you, O king, your thoughts came upon your bed…that you may know the thoughts of your heart” (Daniel 2:29-30). According to this interpretation, dreams are simply a revelation of one’s own subconscious thoughts and feelings. Much can be learned about oneself from dreams, but they don’t necessarily tell the future.
Who can tell the difference between a dream which is internally revealing and a dream which has a prophetic element? Daniel states “[God] gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to they who know understanding” (Daniel 2:21).
In my opinion, whether a dream holds some great word of God to be shared, or a potential clarity in the matters of one’s own heart, it is worthwhile to interpret dreams. As Rav Ḥisda said: “A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” However one should be cautious when having their dreams interpreted. The gemara relates a story: “There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. One time, I [Rabbi Bena’a] dreamed a dream and went to each of them to interpret it. What one interpreted for me the other did not interpret for me, and, nevertheless, all of the interpretations were realized in me, to fulfill that which is stated: All dreams follow the mouth of the interpreter.” I believe this has to do with the power of persuasion and confirmation bias. When an interpretation is given, the dreamer is more likely to notice elements of the interpretation being fulfilled because it has been brought to the forefront of their mind. The great commentator Ibn Ezra warns vehemently against this, claiming that all interpretation belongs to Hashem, because God can see the future and humans cannot.
So what do we do with our dreams? Do we allow them to fade into obscurity? Do we seek out interpretations like the baker and cupbearer? Do we separate the grain from the straw in order to learn some deep mystery about the world? Do we reflect on the context of our lives, and attempt to gain a clearer understanding of our own hearts? As you can see, two Jews means three opinions, and it’s ultimately up to each of us how we answer these questions. But if you’re a dreamer like me, and do not know what your dreams mean the sages offer this advice: “One who saw a dream and does not know what he saw should stand…during the Priestly Blessing and say the following (in Hebrew below):
‘Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours,
I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is.
Whether I have dreamed of myself, whether my friends have dreamed of me or whether I have dreamed of others,
if the dreams are good, strengthen them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph.
And if the dreams require healing,
heal them like the bitter waters of Mara by Moses our teacher, and like Miriam from her leprosy,
and like Hezekiah from his illness, and like the bitter waters of Jericho by Elisha.
And just as You transformed the curse of Balaam the wicked into a blessing,
so transform all of my dreams for me for the best.’
And he should complete his prayer together with the priests so the congregation responds amen both to the blessing of the priests and to his individual request. And if he is not able to recite this entire formula, he should say:
‘Majestic One on high, Who dwells in power,
You are peace and Your name is peace.
May it be Your will that You bestow upon us peace.’” (Brachot 55b)
“רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, אֲנִי שֶׁלָּךְ וַחֲלוֹמוֹתַי שֶׁלָּךְ, חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וְאֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ מַה הוּא. בֵּין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי אֲנִי לְעַצְמִי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלְמוּ לִי חֲבֵירַי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי עַל אֲחֵרִים, אִם טוֹבִים הֵם — חַזְּקֵם וְאַמְּצֵם כַּחֲלוֹמוֹתָיו שֶׁל יוֹסֵף. וְאִם צְרִיכִים רְפוּאָה — רְפָאֵם כְּמֵי מָרָה עַל יְדֵי מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּינוּ, וּכְמִרְיָם מִצָּרַעְתָּהּ, וּכְחִזְקִיָּה מֵחׇלְיוֹ, וּכְמֵי יְרִיחוֹ עַל יְדֵי אֱלִישָׁע. וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁהָפַכְתָּ קִלְלַת בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע לִבְרָכָה, כֵּן הֲפוֹךְ כׇּל חֲלוֹמוֹתַי עָלַי לְטוֹבָה״
“אַדִּיר בַּמָּרוֹם, שׁוֹכֵן בִּגְבוּרָה, אַתָּה שָׁלוֹם וְשִׁמְךָ שָׁלוֹם. יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ שֶׁתָּשִׂים עָלֵינוּ שָׁלוֹם״
by Hazzan Barbara Barnett
This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, is fascinating, deep and textured on so many levels. In it, Jacob famously wrestles with what is described as an “ish” (man). Is it really “a man,” or is it a heavenly being? G-d? Or a struggle within himself?
After this struggle, G-d changes Jacob’s name to Yisrael, “for you have wrestled with G-d, and with people, and prevailed.” The name can be deconstructed as Yisra-el, the first part of which stems from the word “to struggle” and “el” referring to G-d.
This face-to-face encounter with G-d, panim el panim, as the text says, precedes another face-to-face encounter with his twin brother Esau, this encounter is one that Jacob fears, and for good reason. But rather than run away from what might be a disastrous meeting, Jacob is ready to face Esau. He does not go naively into their meeting but prepares well, keeping his growing family protected—just in case Esau is out for revenge, still seething after Jacob usurped his birthright.
The first meeting between the estranged brothers is interesting. After Jacob approaches cautiously and humbly, prostrating himself seven times at Esau’s feet, The text continues, “Esau ran to meet [Jacob and his family]. He hugged [Jacob], and throwing himself on his shoulders, kissed him. They [both] wept.”
Taken on face value, the text suggests that the years have faded the bitter memory of the stolen birthright from Esau into some sort of acceptance, and rather than bitter, one reading of the Hebrew text suggests some sort of reconciliation—a hug to “forgive and forget.”
But above the text for the word “kissed” dance a series of dots (one on each letter), a scribal oddity, a unique formation that appears only few other times in the Torah scroll. is ambiguous, and as suggested by the scribal uniqueness of the word “kissed,” Above the word וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ (vayi’shakei’hu—”kissed him”) you might notice all the tiny dots.
The meaning of the dots themselves wherever they appear suggest that there is something more than meets the eye within the word or words beneath these dots. Perhaps the spelling of the word is not as originally intended (a scribal version of a typo?).
Rabbis and scholars have pondered the meaning of these dots since the time of the Talmud, positing the dots suggest Esau’s kiss was ambivalent at best, or even that it wasn’t a kiss at all, but an attempt to bite (!) Jacob in the neck.
Hmm. So, is “Vayisha’kei’hu וישקיהו (and he kissed him) really supposed to be “Vayisha’kei’hu וישכיהו and he bit him?” Quite a different meaning, eh? The words sound the same, but one of the verb’s consonants is different (noted in bold), and vastly changes the meaning of the passage
One letter entirely alters Esau’s sentiment (and the direction of his heart) from a kiss of reconciliation after years of estrangement, to the betrayal of vulnerability and friendship instead.
The truth is, we don’t know for certain (and that’s often the fun of parsing Biblical text).
To me, those dots above the word suggest Esau’s ambivalence toward his brother, but for this inevitable meeting, he is willing to bury the past, if only for the moment, and later in this portion, to bury, together, their father Abraham. And that all got me thinking about Thanksgiving, gatherings, and getting together with family members with whom we may have (or had) rivalries, bad vibes, and vehement differences of opinion.
This year as many of us venture out beyond the Zoomscape next week to gather in person for Thanksgiving feasts, we’ll undoubtedly meet up with those in our intimate circle for whom we don’t, let’s say, have the kindest of feelings—especially these days. How will we greet them? Yeah, you may be inclined to bite them (metaphorically with a sarcastic snap), but you won’t, and instead embrace (or bump fists or elbows), not wholeheartedly, but in the interest of keeping peace, maintaining civility, and enjoying the moment. Imagine, and then set aside, the dots, letting them fade from relevance, if only for a day.
From our family to yours, a meaningful and joyous Thanksgiving.