Wednesday, November 26, 2008



This week's portion is Toldot.

The portion begins with the pregnancy of Rivkah (Rebecca); Rivkah and Yitzchak (Isaac), after years of prayer, are given children. Rivkah learns through a prophetic message that her very active fetuses are twins, and that they are destined to battle each other for supremacy.

Those two children are Yaakov and Esav (Jacob and Esau). Yaakov is born holding on to Esav's heel, the fulcrum of Esav's leverage, and spends much of his life using that grip to his advantage.

As the children age, they pursue different ends. Esav is a hunter and bandit, while Yaakov stays in the tent and studies. Yaakov is not without guile, though; he gains leverage over Esav when Esav comes in starving from the fields, and he convinces Esav to sell the inheritance of the first-born to him. Note that this is not the same as the blessing of the firstborn; those appear to be two different entities.

There is a famine, and the family moves to Grar, a Philistine city. Yitzchak and Rivkah, learning from Avraham and Sarah, pretend that they are brother and sister to prevent the people from killing Yitzchak to take Rivkah. No one actually took Rivkah, though, before their charade
fell apart and they were discovered to be husband and wife.

The Philistines created trouble for Yitzchak and Rivkah, filling in their wells and forcing them to move from place to place, but Gd helped them achieve financial success. Ultimately, Avimelech, the Philistine leader, made a treaty with them.

Esav married at age 40, modeling his actions on his father Yitzchak's marriage at age 40. Esav's wives were idolatrous, though.

As Yitzchak aged, his vision weakened. He neared the age at which Sarah had died (127), and he decided to communicate to Esav the blessing which Gd had given Avraham, and Avraham had given to Yitzchak. Rivkah found out, understood Esav for who he was, and had Yaakov take advantage of Yitzchak's physical blindness in order to get the blessing.

Yitzchak agreed, in retrospect, that it was proper to bless Yaakov. Some suggest that he knew all along what was happening, but this is difficult to see in the Torah's sentences and in the early commentators.

In the aftermath, Rivkah heard that Esav was going to try to kill Yaakov. She told Yaakov to flee, under the pretext of finding a wife for himself with her family in Aram.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Chayyei Sarah


This week's portion is Chayyei Sarah.

The portion begins with Sarah's death and burial. Avraham eulogizes Sarah and tries to acquire a burial plot in Hebron. In negotiations, Ephron, a local Hittite, at first acts in a generous manner, then tries to take advantage of Avraham by over-charging for the land. Avraham over-pays for the land.

Avraham charges his servant Eliezer to leave Israel in order to find an appropriate wife for Isaac. Isaac is supposed to remain in Israel due to his special status as an offering to Gd, so Eliezer is sent to Avraham's grand-nephew, B'tuel.

Eliezer turns to Gd for help, asking that the right girl come to the well and perform a great act of kindness, so that he will know she is the right one. He asks that she offer water for the camels, as well as for himself. Rivka (Rebecca), B'tuel's daughter, does exactly that when she comes out to the well.

Eliezer goes back to her house, where everyone agrees to the marriage. The next day, Lavan, Rivka's brother, begins to protest and stall. Rebecca overrules him, and goes with Eliezer.

Avraham re-marries, marrying a woman named Keturah. Some say that Keturah is the same person as Hagar, Sarah's former maid. Avraham has children with her, but none of them display the greatness of Avraham and Sarah.

Avraham dies, and Yitzchak (Isaac) and Yishmael bury him. Yishmael indicates his repentance for his earlier sins by allowing Yitzchak, the younger of the two, to act ahead of him in the burial.

The portion concludes with a genealogy of Ishmael and a mention of his death. Yishmael wouldn't actually die for a long time afterward, but because he isn't relevant for the rest of the book of Genesis, the rest of his story is recorded at this point.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, November 12, 2008



This week's portion is the jam-packed parshah of Vayyera:

Avraham and the Angels
[The sequence of events at the beginning of this Torah portion may be understood in several ways because of ambiguity in the text; here is one of the traditional ways to understand it:]
Avraham circumcised himself at the end of last week's portion, and he was very weak afterward. Tradition teaches that the third day after a surgery is the day of the greatest pain, and Gd visited Avraham on that day. Gd sent Avraham three angelic messengers, disguised as human passersby; Avraham thought they were human beings.
Avraham asked Gd to wait while he tended to his visitors, offering them water to wash their feet as well as a full meal prepared with Sarah and Yishmael. One of the guests informed Avraham and Sarah that Yitzchak will be born to them. Two of the guests then departed to travel to Sdom, with a mission to destroy that area and save Lot.

Gd decided to destroy Sdom because of their xenophobic cruelty. He informed Avraham of this decision, and Avraham protested that if there were 50 righteous people among them, it would not be right to destroy the whole area. He tried to bargain Gd down to accept fewer and fewer righteous people and save the city.
In the end, Gd didn't tell Avraham whether He would destroy the city or not.

The Guests Arrive in Sdom
The angels arrived in Sdom, and met Lot. Lot insisted that they come to his home, and he offered them water and food (practices he had seen in Avraham and Sarah's home). The townspeople learned of their presence, and attacked the house in an attempt to get at them for abusive purposes. Lot betrayed his lack of righteousness by offering the townspeople his daughters in place of the visitors. Despite Lot's lack of personal merit, the angels defended Lot and his family.
The angels destroyed Sdom and saved Lot, his wife and two daughters, warning them not to look back at the city's destruction; their merit was not great enough to allow them to see the downfall of others, as they surivived. Lot's wife looked back, and was frozen as a pillar of salt in her place.
Lot and his daughters fled. When they camped, Lot's daughters got him drunk and mated with him, thinking that they would not find another man.

Avimelech and the Philistines
Avraham and Sarah saw the devastation of Sdom, and moved away to the southwest part of Israel, an area controlled by the Philistines.
As they did in Egypt in last week's Torah portion, Avraham and Sarah pretended to be brother and sister lest Avraham be killed by those who would kill him and take Sarah. Avimelech took Sarah, but Gd told him to let her go. He did so, and he rebuked Avraham for the deception.

Birth of Yitzchak
Avraham and Sarah moved away, and Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to Yitzchak. Yishmael, Yitzchak's 17-year-old half-brother, became a threat to Yitzchak, and Sarah told Avraham to evict Yishmael along with Yishmael's mother, Hagar. Gd backed up Sarah's words, and Avraham did it.
Hagar and Yishmael ran out of water in the desert, but Gd rescued them when Yishmael called out to Him.

The Binding of Yitzchak
Gd appeared to Avraham and told him to bring Yitzchak up on a mountain. Avraham understood this as an order to sacrifice Yitzchak, and so he prepared to do it even though this would have meant the end of Avraham's dreams for his descendants. At the last moment, Gd told Avraham to spare Yitzchak, and He promised Avraham that his total faith would be rewarded during the lives of his descendants.
We then learn of the birth of Rivkah, who would go on to marry Yitzchak.

Have a great day,

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Lech Lecha


The coming week's Torah portion is Lech Lecha; here's a brief outline of this action-packed portion:

Our portion begins with Gd's instruction to Avraham and Sarah - then named Avram and Sarai - to travel to Israel. He promises to make Avraham's descendants into a great nation, and to give them great blessings.

Avraham and Sarah, with Sarah's brother Lot, arrive in Israel and began to travel around the land. They experience a famine, though, and they leave Israel for Egypt. Sarah pretends to be Avraham's sister rather than his wife, lest the Pharaoh decide to kill Avraham in order to take Sarah (note that Avraham and Sarah expected that Sarah would have been taken to the Pharaoh either way; Avraham was not asking her to give her own life to save his). Sure enough, Sarah is taken to the Pharaoh, but the Pharaoh suffers a mysterious ailment inflicted by Gd whenever he approaches her, causing him to release her.

Avraham and Sarah leave Egypt, heading back to Israel. Lot splits from the family, as he has grown in wealth and needs his own space. He opts for the area of S'dom (Sodom); he selects the site for its beauty. Lot runs into trouble, though. An alliance of four kings defeats the forces of S'dom and four other nations, and captures him in the process. Avraham hears of this and comes to the rescue, defeating the four kings. He refuses to take from the spoils, though, asking only for an amount for his allies. Avraham says he does not want anyone to be able to say that he had enriched Avraham.

Gd then appears to Avraham and promises him great wealth. Avraham replies that wealth is useless to him, as he has no heir. Gd responds that Avraham and Sarah will have children, and those children will be strangers in a land not their own. They will be oppressed, and then they will return to Israel with great wealth.

Sarah sees that she cannot become pregnant, and she convinces Avraham to take her servant, Hagar, as a concubine. Hagar immediately becomes pregnant, and begins to treat Sarah poorly. Sarah responds by giving Hagar more work, and Hagar flees the house. An angel appears to her and instructs her to return to the house, informing her also about her son Yishmael's violent future.

Thirteen years later, Gd tells Avram that he will now be called "Avraham (Father of many nations)" instead of "Avram (Great father)." Sarai will now be called "Sarah (Queen)" instead of "Sarai (My queen)." Gd promises them that they will have a son, who will become a great nation.

Avraham is given the mitzvah of circumcision, and he circumcises his household.

Have a great day,