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Yom Rivii, 25 Kislev 5778

This week we will be reading from parashat Vayishlach. Vayishlach, along with Vayigash (the story of Joseph and his brothers), contains two of the most powerful reconciliation narratives in the Torah. In this week, it was

Jacob who was returning to his homeland after years away. Jacob was returning to his homeland after having worked to acquire his wives: Rachel and Leah as well as their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah. At this point, Jacob is a wealthy and powerful man. There is only one thing standing in his way, his brother Esau. Jacob was worried that Esau was going to kill him upon sight, for Jacob had wronged his twin brother.

Jacob was fearful, in part, because when he looked out, he saw his brother approaching along with four hundred armed men. Yet, when they came close, “he himself (Jacob) went ahead of them and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. Esau … ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him. And they burst into tears” (Gen. 33:3-4). As is mentioned in the Plaut Commentary on this passage, “Esau’s readiness to make peace comes as a surprising climax to the carefully prepared encounter” (pg. 233).

They then spent time getting reacquainted. Later on, the brothers united one more time to bury their father Isaac.

The process of reconciliation is never easy. It involves admitting that we do not hold the absolute truth on reality. Therapists call this “separate-reality phenomenon.” That though we may have experienced events and lives with another person, they may very well have a different understanding of those same experiences. In the case of Jacob and Esau, the reconciliation was only possible because Jacob came to understand how he had wronged and hurt his brother. If he had not, the story may have ended very differently.

This is not to say that every broken relationship needs mending. But, if there are those out there we would like to mend, our Torah portion is inviting us to start by asking: are their memories different from ours? And if so, why?

There was very little Jacob and Esau agreed on. They did go their separate ways. But at the end of the day, they did at least agree that they were family. And that can be a starting point for some of us this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

This week’s parasha, Vayeitzei, begins with Jacob alone in the wilderness. He had just been sent out by his father Isaac to go find a wife from their homeland in Padan-Aram. It is somewhat a parallel to when Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac. Neither Abraham nor Isaac were fans of the local Canaanite women.

This was most likely the first time Jacob was all alone on a journey. We can imagine that perhaps he was tired and scared when the sun began to set. He lay down to sleep, and there he had a vision of a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending the ladder. Thereupon God spoke to Jacob and told him, “Hinei Anochi Imach, here I am, with you. I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil…” Upon waking, Jacob proclaimed, “Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:15-16)

There are a handful of interpretations of this vision of the ladder. In Vayikra Rabbah 29:2, one of the midrashic commentaries, the angels ascending represent the four nations aligned against Israel: Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece and lastly Edom (or Rome). Each of these nations ascended over Israel but was ultimately brought low, while Israel remained. Jacob, in his moment of vulnerability, possibly saw himself as always being alone and vulnerable. So too with the nation of Israel; at the hands of Her occupiers, probably felt that She would always be an occupied nation.

One of the elements of being human is that we tend to see the current moment as the projection of what the future will be. Social science explains that we are influenced by our own unconscious biases. We also crave control, which leads us to believe that we know what will happen next. But the truth is, we can only predict what is coming, and studies show we are terrible at predicting.

So what does this mean? The Torah is stating that Jacob needs to have faith that his journey will be unexpected and that the future is not set. Jacob should also rest assured that God will be with him on every step of this journey.

Uncertainty is part of life. In order to make our way through it, we are to cherish the moments of sacredness and holiness when we unexpectedly encounter them. And we should be thankful to all of those who are a part of our life’s journeys.

Jacob, who was alone and sacred, was on the verge of encountering the love of his life, was being tricked by his step-father, was fathering the foundation for a nation, was moving to Egypt, and was being reconciled with a long-lost son. But, at this moment, all he knows is that the road ahead is uncertain, and that he wants to take the next step into the journey.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, contains a rare cantillation or trope mark that appears only four times in the entire Torah – the shalshelet. Rabbis have been commenting on the significance of the trope for centuries, especially the rare ones. Mystics believe that every letter in the Torah has meaning, as do each vowel and chant mark. They believe that the te’amim (trope), representing the feminine element of oral Torah, impregnate the letters of the written Torah with the deepest levels of meaning. Mystics study the hidden meanings of the Torah, first through the contemplation of the letters (written in the actual scrolls), then the vowels (codified in books), and then finally the chant marks. Each level enables the scholar to gain deeper insights into the mystical underpinning of the Torah texts.

The word, shalshelet, means chain and comes from the root, shalosh, three. The shalshelet chant mark, according to the method of chant most commonly used in North America, sounds like a vocal exercise, a repeated arpeggio on the notes of a major chord. The melody is repeated three times and chained together, thus illustrating both the root word for three and the meaning of the word itself – chain. Most rabbis have interpreted this trope to indicate hesitation.

Click here to hear the shalshelet.

We see the shalshelet in this week’s parshah when Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is given the task of finding a bride for Isaac. Eliezer asks G-d to give him a sign so that he will recognize the proper bride. The shalshelet appears on the Hebrew word, “Vayomar – and he said.” If the shalshelet is a sign of hesitation in his making this request to G-d, why would Eliezer hesitate?

Some commentators suggest that perhaps Eliezer didn’t really want to do this. After all, if Isaac remained unmarried, Eliezer himself, being Abraham’s closest aid, would be next in line to carry the covenant, or, perhaps Isaac would marry Eliezer’s own daughter (also providing security for himself and his family.)

Another potential reason for Eliezer’s hesitation is awe. Maybe this is Eliezer’s first prayer to Abraham’s G-d. If so, this would be quite a moment. Even if not, the awesomeness of the task of finding a bride for Isaac might give Eliezer pause.

Because the word shalshelet means chain, its use could also be interpreted through the lens of chains, each link of which takes us to a higher level, both musically and spiritually. Eliezer is praying to G-d for a wife for Isaac. Should his prayer be answered, it would allow the chain of tradition, started with Abraham and Sarah to continue on to the next generation – indeed it would help establish the lineage of the three (shalosh) patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, creating a powerful chain of Jewish tradition that continues to this day.

Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor Sally Neff

The haftarah portion to this week’s parasha, Toldot, comes to us from the prophet Malachai. We know little about the prophet except that he lived during the 5th Century B.C.E. when Judah was under Persian rule.

It begins, “I have loved you!” says the Eternal One. But you say, “How have You shown Your love for us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” says the Eternal One, “But I have loved Jacob, and hated Esau – making his hills a desolation, giving his heritage to jackals” (Malachai 1:2-3).

Jacob and Esau were known for fighting against each other dating back to the time they were in the womb. Esau was also referred to as Edom (red) because he had red hair. According to the Rabbinic reading of Toldot and Malachai, Esau (Edom) became the embodiment of all of Israel’s enemies. It also became a code word for when the rabbis were referring to Rome during the Roman occupation.

But why all of this animosity towards the brother of Jacob? Part of the reason for it was because Jacob and Esau were two very different individuals. Esau was the man of action. He liked to hunt. He carried his heart on his sleeve. He was quick to anger. And, at least according to the midrash, he thought little and instead acted on instinct.

But the rabbis go even further. Esau was accused of idolatry in some rabbinic writings. Others describe Esau as the epitome of evil. Or that Esau is the symbol of the yetzer ha’rah, the evil inclination. The drive to do things we know we should not do.

However, the Torah provides little substance to these subsequent interpretations of Esau. One might argue that the interpreters are reading back into history and finding a collective enemy they can rally their supporters around.

So we are left with the lingering question: is there something of substance we can learn from Esau? I had the pleasure of hearing a D’var Torah recently that was asking a very similar question. And one possibility is that Esau lived the Jewish value of kibud av’v’eim, honoring one’s mother and father. Esau, in particular, was devoted to his father Isaac, who also is not treated too favorably by tradition.

Perhaps then the lesson is that there are opportunities to learn from everyone we encounter, even people we may dislike for one reason or another. They may make choices we find abhorrent, and there are some truly terrible people in the world. But most people are striving to do what they feel is right, and in that there is, at least, a glimmer of the holy. Not always, but at least there is the potential.

For if we can find goodness in Esau, perhaps there are others we have cast aside that we may be able to find at least a speck of goodness in as well.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

This week we will be reading from parashat Vayera. It begins with the story of Abraham who, after having just circumcised himself, was sitting outside his tent during the hottest part of the day. He looked up and he saw three men, possibly three angels, approaching (the text is not entirely clear). Abraham raced out to greet them. He bowed low to the ground and welcomed them into his tent, and he provided them with food and water. This story is understood to be the epitome of the mitzvah hachnasat orchim, welcoming in the stranger.

In ancient days, the welfare of travelers was often completely dependent upon the kindness and generosity of strangers. It has been a Jewish value ever since. It is even mentioned as part of our morning liturgy when we recite Eilu D’varim, these things. Eilu D’varim represents the rabbinic interpretation of the Ten Commandments. They include acts of loving kindness, honoring one’s mother and father, providing for the wedding couple, and making peace among people, just to name a few. Eilu D’varim ends with the statement that the study of Torah (Talmud Torah) is equal to them all because it leads to them all (based on the Mishnah Tractate Peah 1:1 and the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 127a).

The combination of hachnasat orchim and Talmud Torah implies that we can also learn a lot from the strangers or visitors in our midst. It is not merely about being welcoming or engaging in audacious hospitality, but it is also about genuinely listening to each other, and learning about the other, their lives and their journeys.

This means the ideal of being welcoming is to be inclusive. It does not mean we have to love every stranger in our midst, but as we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, we should strive to help them find a safe haven, even if their time with us is only transitory. For we can learn a lot from each other.

On a related note, tonight at our family service at 6:30 we will be welcoming two candidates for office. As has been mentioned on numerous occasions, The Reform Temple of Rockland, along with its clergy, does not endorse any candidates seeking public office. However, as a good community member we do welcome candidates who wish to meet and greet with the members of our community. Tonight, we are scheduled to have County Commissioner Ed Day and Clarkstown Supervisor George Hoehmann join us.

We encourage you to join us for Shabbat services and you will have a chance to meet and ask questions from these candidates, hopefully before and after services. And as always, if you know of any other candidates who would like to meet and greet, they are always welcome as well.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff