Torah From A Mussar Perspective Vayeshev 5782

Torah From A Mussar Perspective Vayeshev 5782

The below commentary first appeared as part of Torah From A Mussar Perspective through the Mussar Institute.


Parshat Vayeshev contains within it the multi-faceted story of Judah and Tamar. Judah, Jacob and Leah’s fourth son, has journeyed away from his brothers and has married a woman named Shua with whom he has three sons. In time, Tamar marries Judah’s eldest son, Er. Er’s actions are displeasing to God, and he dies shortly thereafter—the Torah does not explore this further, and we are left with many unanswered questions. Though we have not been introduced to this practice in the Torah before now, the Torah makes it clear that to continue Er’s lineage, Tamar must marry his brother, Onan. The Torah does not explore Tamar’s interiority, but instead takes this union for granted. Onan soon dies, and Judah tells Tamar that she should return to her father’s house and live as a widow there.


For many of us, this destabilizing time has felt devoid of agency and choice. We are living on autopilot, unable to redirect our habitual cognitive patterns, tossed and turned about by life. Add to this the reality that the world is filled with systemic and structural inequities, and at times, cultivating a sense of choice and agency can feel nearly impossible.


In his book, Changing the World from the Inside Out, Rabbi David Jaffe discusses Rav Eliyahu Dessler’s bechirah or choice point, an important practice in our Mussar work. Choice points appear in all spheres of human life, from interpersonal interactions to wider social involvement. In his classic discussion of the bechirah point, Rav Dessler notes that free will is a cornerstone of traditional Jewish belief. The Divine does not predestine the course of our lives. Yet, our free will manifests most immediately at our bechirah or choice point. We are constantly confronted with choice points. It’s nearly midnight, I know I need to get to sleep. But can’t I just listen to one more podcast episode? I’ll be better tomorrow and get the requisite sleep I need.


Of course, we know that the moment when we listened to the voice that told us that one more episode would be simply fine, we fell into the well-worn pattern we’ve created. We know how the story ends. A bechirah point presented itself and we made a choice, though we told ourselves it was no choice at all.


Rav Dessler reminds us to take account of those moments and reroute, as it were. Yet, we also understand that choice is not infinite. Inequities persist, unfortunately, and many of us are limited by systems and structures we did not create. Despite this, Rabbi Jaffe reminds us that the practice of recognizing the bechirah point and doing a cheshbon hanefesh, soul accounting, is a way for us to notice the manifold opportunities presented to us to be subjects in our own lives. This is so even when internal and external conditions tell us otherwise.


Returning to Tamar, who has lived for many years in her father’s home as a widow, on the promise that she will marry Judah’s third son upon his reaching maturity, she realizes that he has in fact grown and she remains unmarried. At this point, Tamar faces a bechirah point. The patriarchal reality she finds herself in is unforgiving. Even so, Tamar chooses to act, deceiving her father-in-law by disguising herself as a prostitute and requiring him to leave collateral. When word gets out that she is pregnant, Judah orders her to be brought out and burned. Just as the horrific punishment is about to be meted out, Tamar sends a message to Judah, informing him that the children she carries belong to the man whose collateral she is presenting. Judah, realizing immediately that the items are his, proclaims that Tamar is far more righteous than he.


Tamar is presented with an impossible reality. Married and widowed twice, she is cast out, in a liminal time and space, waiting for the third of Judah’s sons to marry her. Unwilling to accept the status quo, even in such an unforgiving environment, Tamar takes her fate into her own hands in the only way her social station allows. The choice point presents itself. Will Tamar continue to wait for a life she must know subconsciously will not materialize? Or will she direct the course of her life as best as she can?


We are none of us entirely free agents, of course. There are so many factors that impact the course of our lives, the choices available to us, how well resourced we are. Those of us who are trauma survivors understand that residual trauma can have a lasting impact. In my own life, I have found that recounting the bechirah points presented to me each day fills me with a sense of empowerment. I am not merely an object but am in fact able to make numerous decisions every day, even and especially when the external landscape is limited. As we continue to journey forward, may we cultivate an ability to recognize and utilize the bechirah points we are faced with every day to be co-creators with The Divine in the world we yearn to bring into being.



Vayetze 5781 — The Humanity Of Our Ancestors

There’s something so richly rewarding about returning again and again to our foundational stories in sefer Bereshit year after year. As we learn in Perkei Avot, often translated imprecisely as ethics of our fathers, turn it turn it, for everything is in it. I approach Torah year after year with the intuitive sense that something new will emerge—Torah will reveal herself to me in an entirely new way this year. My experiences, like Torah, therefore, can never be static. The inner life of the spiritual seeker is one of profound self-inquiry, uncovering layers of our past and present experiences as if we were pulling back the endless layers of an onion.

These twelve weeks of inhabiting and immersing ourselves in the profundity, tragedy, trial and triumph of sefer Bereshit are weeks of such richness that determining how one ought to focus one’s Torah teaching is an exercise in self-limitation. Though we divide the Torah into 54 parshiyot designed to be read over the course of a calendar year, the narrative flow and contiguity between parshiyot, particularly in Sefer Bereshit is something we must not lose awareness of.

We were introduced to Yaakov Avinu, our third and final patriarch last week in parashat Toldot when we learn that he emerged into the world grasping the heel of his older brother, Esav. We later learn that Yaakov was a simple man, a tent-dweller, perhaps in our pandemic time we might call him a natural introvert or homebody. By contrast, Esav is a man of the outdoors, someone who loves to hunt. Their relationship was a rocky one from the get-go—perhaps our Torah is hinting at discord when it presents us with contrasting profiles of the two brothers, just as it will contrast two sisters in our parsha this week. This discord comes to a head at the end of parashat Toldot following Yaakov’s stealing of Esav’s blessing through an act of deception orchestrated by Rivka. Numerous commentators, contemporary and historical alike have offered insights into Rivka’s decision-making process, Yaakov’s choice to go along with it despite initial misgivings and Yitzchak’s reaction—did he know what was going on or didn’t he?

What interests me most of all is something deeper and yet more profound. Ours is a tradition that does not shy away from the hard, messy reality of human life. How many of us find ourselves part of deeply flawed, profoundly imperfect and truly, deeply human family structures? Our Torah records these foundational ancestral narratives, and we return to them year after year because we know in our bones that they are just as human as we are, and we are no less human than they were. Our western conception of religion seems to tell us that religious figures whom we revere and look up to, in one fashion or another, must by their very nature and designation as holy be without flaw. By contrast, our Jewish tradition argues the opposite. Our humanity in all of its messy, complex and contradictory reality has existed from the very beginning and we will continue to contain multitudes far into the future. Our Torah, speaking to us in every generation and throughout time and space records these foundational narratives because they have the power to reveal so much about ourselves. It is easy, perhaps, to look at Rivka’s orchestration of a tremendous act of willful deception and respond assuredly that G-d-forbid, we would never act so crassly. If we hold to the idea that progress is inherently linear, a notion deeply popular in the west, then it is easy to look at an ancient, far-removed text, read this episode and dismiss it outrightly as a relic from a bygone era. Our Torah cautions against this smugness and asks us to look deeply within and engage in some soul-accounting or cheshbon nefesh. When have we acted deceptively, deliberately or accidentally? Have we made choices that resulted in someone feeling stripped of their human dignity or agency? What were the underlying conditions, physical, psychological, spiritual and emotional that lead us to that point?

Our Torah also demonstrates to us repeatedly that our decisions and actions have consequences, consequences which can last for generations. In our parsha this week, Laban, Yaakov’s uncle and the father of Leah and Rachel engages in an act of deception which mirrors in some important respects that which Yaakov and Rivka perpetrated against Yitzchak when he reverses the marriage order. Yaakov awakes after what he believes to have been his wedding to his beloved Rachel only to discover that he had married and spent the night with Leah, the elder sister, whom our Torah contrasts with Rachel by describing her eyes as being dim, weak, not as beautiful. Though Yaakov does marry Rachel, he is never settled. His father-in-law, Laban, mistreats him, changing his wages many times. Rachel and Leah’s relationship is a challenged one and Leah, knowing in her very soul that Yaakov’s affections are squarely with her sister is left seeking, yearning for that which remains distant from her.

Leah, often seen, unfortunately in my view, as the least consequential of our matriarchs offers us a glimpse into the complex but all-too-real reality that so many experience of being made to feel like an outcast in their own families. From the very depths of what I can only surmise was unspeakable grief and pain, upon the birth of her fourth son, Yehudah, Leah says she will now thank Hashem and names Yehudah thusly. We am Yisrael, the Jewish people, carry that sense of gratitude, of hoda’ah because of Leah’s expression of pure gratitude. And we know that that gratitude does not erase the pain, the injustice, the unfairness of it all. Oh, do I wish the circumstances of Leah’s life had been dramatically different. And indeed, how might Yaakov’s life have been different had he not engaged in willful deception? Furthermore, how would Yitzchak’s life have been different had the Akeida—the near-sacrifice—not taken place? One can only imagine the permanent psychological imprint of that trauma.

When we revisit these narratives year after year, we are asked not merely to immerse ourselves wholly in what we might comfortably describe as the dysfunctional lives and family structures of our ancestors. We are also asked to immerse wholly in the stories of our own lives. What an opportunity our Torah presents us with if we choose to accept it. It is certainly not easy but toiling in Torah is never meant to be simple, straightforward, without struggle. May Torah continue to reveal herself in all of her beauty, uniqueness and profundity to each of us, individually and collectively.

Bereshit 5781

After a Tishrei like no other, here we are, beginning our Torah anew, just as we do every year. Bereshit, like all of the parshiyot in Genesis is filled with foundational ideas and narratives. In the opening perek/chapter, we are told that human beings are created b’tzelem Elokim—in the image of The Divine. This seemingly simple idea has been understood by our sages and commentators in a variety of ways. One chief idea is that being created in the image of The Divine means that we are each endowed by Hashem with inherent dignity, value and worth, without regard to external markers of human-fashioned social hierarchies, oppressive systems and biases. No human being is created any more or any less in The Divine image. We all have within us a spark of The Divine, a spark which cannot be sullied, but yet, we also were given free will and the ability to choose whether to reveal that holy spark or conceal it. We reveal and make manifest in the world that holy spark through our interpersonal interactions, through how we treat our planet, and generally through how we choose to show up in our lives. Do we treat people with dignity and honor? Do we strive to build a better and more just world, a world in which we all can thrive? Or do we choose to conceal that spark? One cannot consume news media without hearing, seeing, or reading about the utter failure of humanity to live up to the best of who we can be.

I feel such gratitude to be a part of a spiritual tradition and lineage which does not seek to claim that human beings are perfect or above reproach. Indeed, our Holy Torah shows us repeatedly in Sefer Bereshit/the Book of Genesis and beyond that we contain multitudes—we are capable of great goodness and great evil. We return to our Torah’s narratives again and again because in every generation, they speak to us anew. The times in which we live grant us the opportunity to unearth novel insights into eternal, ancient texts.

I was drawn this year to the end of our parsha in particular. Ten Generations have elapsed between Adam, Chava and Noach. Hashem is growing increasingly frustrated with human behavior, noting that humans are wont to behave violently and lawlessly all of the time. In a collection of Agadic Midrash or narrative midrash, which are rabbinic expansions and interpretations of Biblical texts called Bereshit Raba, we are told that ours was not the first world Hashem created. Disappointed with the many other worlds created before our own, Hashem found it necessary to start over. And here again, Hashem’s disappointment is manifold. Regretting that humanity was ever created leads Hashem to bring about a totalizing flood, saving only Noach, his family and myriads of animal species of all kinds. Sometimes, change is so great, disappointment so deep that we cannot but destroy the very foundational structures that form the building blocks of how we understand our lives and the universe. We don’t like chaos, striving always for binary categorization. Our frustration, too, can cause us to lash out, destroying anyone or anything in the line of our fire.

Many of us are grappling with feelings of profound frustration, disappointment in our fellow human beings, disconnection, rage and even disgust during these days of pandemic, anxiety and unrest. That disappointment can lead us to feelings of unending despair, apathy and disaffection. In a time of tremendous change, how are we to find our footing? At a time of such a profoundly necessary societal reckoning, not to mention myriads of interpersonal reckonings and shifts in priorities, it feels for many of us like we are at a turning point, and it is time for the world to be reborn and remade a new. How do we breathe and build that world into being? Though we may resonate with Hashem’s disappointment, we must also remember that after the flood, Hashem promises, in a covenant with all of humanity, never to destroy the world like that again. We return, then, to our first teaching. That holy spark of The Divine, when revealed into the world, allows us to make manifest the absolute best of who we can be. What would it feel like to live in a world where all beings could thrive without fear? Let us take this anxious time as an opportunity to actualize our deepest desires for a better world through action and spiritual practice rooted in our traditions and rooted in resilience.

A Short Reflection on Parashat Vayeitze

This piece was written in 5777 as part of a course on Chasidic Torah commentaries.

The Sfat Emet offers us some compelling teachings on Parashat Vayeitzei which dovetail nicely with the teachings that the Ohev Yisrael brings on last week’s parsha, Parashat Toldot regarding the wells that Yitzchack dug. Whereas the Ohev Yisrael thinks about the wells as representing sources of deep inner spiritual nourishment and strength, the Sfat Emet interprets the wells to be the lashon hara that too often clouds our perception of the world around us and the people in our lives.

Genesis 29 opens with Yaakov meeting Rachel at the well. So taken with Rachel’s beauty, he effortlessly it seems moves the stone off the well. The Sfat Emet uses the common Hasidic technique of interpreting verses away from their pshat meaning to make them relevant in the lives of the Jews who were in his circles. So, too, can this image of removing the stone off the well to reveal that well can resonate with us today.

How often are our mechanisms of perception blocked and clouded from understanding the world around us? How often does lashon hara prevent us from coming to understand the perspectives of others because we allow that speech to color our understanding and perceptions of them? One can look at the dichotomy the Torah sets up between Rachel and Leah in this light. We first learn about Leah that her eyes were weak which is contrasted to Rachel’s beauty. Jacob was so captivated with Rachel’s beauty that he was able to move the stone away with uncommon strength. How often do we find ourselves captivated by someone or, conversely, not at all taken with them, and then allow ourselves to be taken in with unfair things we’ve heard about them or rumors that have spread? Instead of looking at wells as potentially overflowing sources of deep spiritual wisdom and strength within, as the Ohev Yisrael teaches, the Sfat Emet is reminding us of the spiritual danger of allowing ourselves to be blocked, clouded and colored by lashon hara and incorrect perceptions.

On Spiritual Seeking: A Dvar Torah for Parashat Vayeitze

This dvar was written in 5777.

Leah’s story has always cried out to me in this week’s parsha—darsheni! And no, it’s not because my Hebrew name just so happens to be Leah. I find much of Leah’s narrative to be deeply resonant and oh so human. Though on its face, Leah’s is a deeply troubling and tragic story, I think there is incredible inner strength to be found within it, as well as a wealth of contemporary spiritual and psychological insight for us all.

Immediately, my attention is grabbed by the first thing we learn about Leah—that her eyes are weak. There’s a classic debate as to whether or not this description of her eyes is intended to refer to a visual disability of some sort—as yet undefined—or whether, as many of us learned, her eyes were weak on account of the rivers of tears she wept upon learning she would be marrying Esau. For me, the important thing to note here is that this is literally the first physical feature we learn about Leah, and the Torah contrasts this optical weakness with her sister, Rachel’s beauty. Why this stark contrast? If, as so many of our Hasidic masters teach, the Torah does not give us extraneous information, why the focus on her eyes? I believe that this helps us set the scene for the way in which Leah’s life will play out. Already, we are here told that there is something physically unsatisfying about Leah, and perhaps this is the Torah’s way of beginning to offer us some justification for why Jacob doesn’t love her—the deceit aside, of course.

Leah, I believe, is keenly aware of her position. Observing daily the love Jacob clearly shows Rachel, Leah is left fruitlessly seeking, both the tangible, temporal love of her husband which seems to be constantly out of reach as well as, perhaps, a sense of closeness to God. If, as the Ohev Yisrael teaches regarding last week’s parsha, Toldot concerning Yitzchack’s wells, each of us has an inner well inside of us, and it is our task to ensure that that well is flowing with the living water from the divine source. However, that well is apt to become blocked, and it is so difficult to break through that blockage. Leah, unloved, unappreciated, seems very adrift, desperately looking for some way to fill that well to overflowing, and despite her efforts, nothing seems to change.

We first encounter Leah’s deep emotional distress when our Torah tells us that God knows that Leah is hated, and thus opens her womb, in contrast to her sister, Rachel who is of yet unable to conceive. In a certain sense, we could think of this as Leah having access to a powerful status marker; though she lacks the physical beauty that is so prized, she does have the ability to bare children, which will enable her to have greater social status perhaps.
She names her firstborn Reuven, from the root to see, for the Lord has surely seen my affliction (Gen. 29:32). “Now that I, his unloved first wife have borne him his first child and a son at that, surely, Jacob will love me!”

We know that Leah’s cry, Leah’s yearning, is for naught. After all, our Torah indicates to us immediately following this that Leah gives birth to a second son, whom she names Simeon—for God knows that I am hated, and so he gave me this one, too (Gen.29:33). Leah knows that God knows her heart. Indeed, Leah is going through the classic stages of grief that we are all familiar with, though we also know that those stages of grief are never linear and rarely as clear cut as they are made out to be.

Though Leah appears to be cognizant of God’s presence in her life and God’s care and concern as is aptly demonstrated with each successive naming, there is also a relentless seeking, a deep, primal yearning for closeness that is never fulfilled. Though with each additional son, Leah assures herself that this is the thing that will make Jacob love me, we know, or at least it is strongly implied that this is not to be. Indeed, after naming Levi out of a belief that now Jacob will be attached to her having borne him three sons, when she names Judah, Leah says only, now I will thank God. Notably, Jacob is absent.

The Noam Elimelech, in his commentary to Parshat Noach teaches the importance of elevating all of one’s daily physical actions in the service of God. Gashmiut is not ancillary to divine service—rather, what we are tasked with doing is revealing the hidden divine sparks in the mundane. Leah is in a situation that is at once both troubling and tragic, profoundly unjust and, also, in its own strange way, perhaps redemptive, at least in her social context in which a woman’s ability to conceive was one of her most important assets. Deprived of what she yearns for, Leah strives to overcome the obstacles not of her own making the only way she is able to, giving each of her children a name that is both emblematic of her feelings towards God and her hopes for her relationship with her husband.

In his commentary on Parshat Lech Lecha, referring to Avraham’s journey, the Degel Machaneh Efrayim talks about prayer—particularly, yehud kriat Shma as an act of mesirut nefesh—a complete nullification of the self as the ultimate act of devotion, stemming out of a primal desire for divine closeness and unity. Though mesirut nefesh is a state that the Degel teaches is something we should be striving towards, if we think about the notion as applied in our very messy and human world, it can be incredibly damaging. Leah is striving with everything she has—literally—to secure Jacob’s affections. Though he makes it abundantly clear that his love is for Rachel and Rachel only, Leah finds herself married to this man not by her own choice, and, unable to extricate herself from such a deeply unfair situation, does what she can to find some sense of rootedness or grounding. She knows full well that, through no fault of her own, she is at a profound physical disadvantage. God gives her access to the sort of capital, to put it perhaps too bluntly, that will allow her status to increase. But even that capital is not enough to make Jacob change.

As the Ohev Yisrael teaches us, though we each have that divine wellspring within, and though it is important to keep the mayyim chayyim within it flowing so we can experience a state of spiritual wellness, because we are humans living in all too human and broken world, that well within gets blocked. Perhaps those obstacles are temporal, financial, social, spiritual, structural, emotional. But rarely are they obstacles we can somehow overcome alone.

When the world feels destabilized, adrift, when the future feels deeply uncertain and profoundly scary, it is easy for us to feel like our foundation has been ripped out from underneath us. It can often feel like we are wandering through that metaphorical desert for longer than forty years, looking for some way forward. When we don’t have that sense of being grounded and rooted, we may use whatever we have access to find that safety and stability that I believe we humans all deeply crave. Making order out of the chaos all around us is something we achieve through whatever means or structures we have available. For Leah, perhaps her children served that function somehow. Setting aside the problematics of that possibility, Leah, I believe, was doing the best she could in less than satisfactory circumstances, and was doing so alone. Though Zilpa is given a cursory mention, we read nothing about anyone coming to Leah’s aid. Her inner well is blocked with no one but herself to get through that blockage.

Though our Chasidic masters teach us much about the spiritual seeking of the individual, ours is a tradition that invests a great deal in building community, be that through our rituals and religious practices or through coming together for simchas and times of deep sorrow alike. Interdependence, I believe, is something I believe we should be striving towards. Had Leah had a community around her, perhaps it would have been easier for her to manage her deep loneliness, and perhaps even depression. Rooted in community, Leah would have, perhaps, been able to channel her completely valid anger in a healthier direction for herself and her family.

A Modern Midrash On Leah

Author’s disclaimer: Please note that what follows is a modern, exploratory and creative midrash, centering on Leah Immeinu’s narrative in Parashat Vayeitze which was originally written in 5777, was subsequently amended in 5779 and at the time of your reading may not necessarily reflect my current thinking and approach. In this midrash, I seek not to offer an absolutest reading or make factual claims–quite the contrary. Modern midrash is a spiritually creative, exploratory art, opening a door of possibility. The art of the modern midrash is about emotional, spiritual and psychological inquiry. My interest in writing was to explore Leah’s inner life and spiritual yearnings which is also as much about my evolving understanding of this episode in our Torah. In this piece, I imagine Leah practicing hitbodedut. When a person engages in the practice of hitbodedut, they are davka supposed to express the full range of their raw human emotion, which I try to do here as well.

Dear God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and my husband, Jacob,

I am in such anger and despair. Sometimes, I honestly don’t know if you are a God I can turn to in joy and sorrow. I am angry at you, which means I clearly care about you, but I can’t take the next step of imagining that you might care about me as I apparently care about you right now. I’m still puzzling that one out, and that matters for what I have to ask you next.

Why did you make it appear that I never was able to find satisfaction in the life I was dealt, in the cards I was handed? Why is it that when I am introduced, the only thing that anyone hears about me are that my eyes were weak? And why is it that in later tradition, my eyes are explained away as being weak because I cried and cried upon learning I’d have to marry Esau?
I am portrayed as a woman earnestly yearning for the love of a man whom I knew never loved me, no matter that I bore six sons. With each subsequent birth, my despair grows, and yet I never find the love I want. All that was important to record about me was these births and my attempt when naming each child to pick something that fit my emotional and spiritual state, which was one of great, even existential anguish. Here I am, hoping with each son my husband will love me and nothing ever changed, I fear. Interesting. No thought was given to my inner or spiritual life. I can’t see too well, but that male gaze is bearing down very hard on me, so hard I can feel it. Many people like me, who don’t see as well as others, speak about feeling the stares of others as they go throughout their lives. It’s not the stares of my family I feel—I feel nothing from them, only exclusion. I know a lot of people who are like me feel excluded from their families and God, that makes me feel such sorrow and heartbreak.

I don’t see as well as others. That’s always been true. And when the midwife discovered that my eyes were weaker than they should have been at birth, she told my mother that they should try to pass me off as sighted as possible because otherwise there was no reason for me to stay alive. So I have always, always, felt like I was at the bottom of a ladder I never created or consented to climb. The expectation was that if Rachel, my charming, beautiful younger sister was to land a handsome man, I’d marry him, too, because that was the best outcome they could possibly imagine. Nonetheless, I was not able to completely flourish in my society, and in our world, ability means everything. People don’t know what to do with people who aren’t like them, God. I don’t know why.
I thought you said something in the book you write about me, towards the beginning I think it is, though I don’t know for sure that every human being is created in your image. When you made such a statement, did you forget me? Sometimes I feel like everyone else but me was created in Your image, but I know that can’t be true, right?

So when I was supposedly deceptively married to Jacob that was to ensure my survival, literally. And I have to tell you, those signs Rachel gave me were really helpful. But I had to act like I wasn’t sad, didn’t know in the depths of my soul that this treatment is the exception, not the rule. That I might never feel so loved again. That hurts more than I can articulate.

Eventually, as you know, I bore six sons and a daughter, Dina, and that wasn’t enough. With each birth, I named my child something that reflected my deep yearning and seeking, both spiritually and also, more immediately, for my husband’s love. And I never got that. Hope would arise within me whenever I conceived, only to be dashed. God what is wrong with me? I always felt like no one in my family thought that perhaps I am a human being worthy of love and acceptance. Pregnancy was as close to another human being as I ever got. How sad for me and how utterly tragic.

I have had a lot of time to think about my life, now that my elder years are upon me. This world is such a cruel and unfair one, God. I am grateful that I found a way to empower myself in this world through giving birth to children, but the body you gave me never met man-made standards. Did I perhaps allow those man-made standards to dictate my worth? God, I know my worth to you is inherent, unconditional. Why do I struggle so mightily to internalize that?
I thought it was you who says don’t put obstacles before the blind. Those aren’t just physical, God. How many obstacles have I had to overcome, and none of them needed to exist? Just because I am a woman, just because my eyes are weak, did I have to bear these burdens? NO! My life means something!!! As I said before, I am grateful you gave me one redeeming feature, but come on! No one cared about my heart and soul. We all have feelings and desires you know.

Don’t you tell Moses—some distant descendant of mine or so I understand—that is you who creates deaf people and blind people, people who speak verbally and people who communicate in other ways? Don’t you say, without any question or hesitation that Aaron will speak for him, that Moses’ speech impediment was fashioned by you, that it is not something that will hold him back from leading our people out of Egypt where we sojourned and were later enslaved? You made me, too, God. My weak eyes are no punishment. They are part of me, but not all of me, a part that many so-called normal people allow to wholly define my life, because they cannot imagine living in this world as I do. I am so sorry for people’s narrowness of imagination and lack of generosity of spirit. I really am. I am grateful that you gave me a way out, God, a way to assure my status. But I do have to say—though my social status and survival were assured through my sons, I never was afforded a more nuanced understanding. I feel like I’m just the unloved one, yearning for love with every son she bears. That’s not me. I don’t want sympathy or pity. I want community. I want to be seen in my fullness; I want people to recognize me as a person, no different than they are. Don’t You uniquely stamp each of us so-to-speak—just like coins are uniquely stamped–because all of our neshamot are precious and matter to you? Even when other people treat some of us neshamot differently, we all matter to You, right?
But You aren’t doing anything to change how people think and act! Ok so you give human beings free will I get it. And I understand that they use that free will to conceal their own divine spark by acting in ways that aren’t aligned with how to treat people in this world. But how can I turn to you in times like this when I feel like nothing ever changes? It’s like what Shlomo HaMelech—I think he comes along a lot later—writes in Kohelet—there’s nothing new under the sun. Are humans always going to be so narrow?
I want to believe that you are always there for me, that you are a God of resilience that you side with the oppressed and that you don’t abandon me, though I certainly feel like you’ve hidden your face from me. Sometimes I do wonder, though, God. Being on the outside looking in, I get a unique perspective on how others behave and I get a good read on people’s characters. I’m trying to co-create a better future with you, God through figuring out what kind of person I want and yearn to be—someone who isn’t interested in superficiality, someone who tries to treat everyone with proper kavod—even my husband who I know doesn’t love me. That still cuts like a knife, God, but sometimes I wonder. Have you given me a gift? The ability to challenge the status quo? To move my family towards a better future?

On Deception and Its Consequences: Parashat Toldot 5777

I wrote this drasha originally in 5777 (November 2016).

When I read the story of Yaakov stealing Esau’s blessing from their father, Yitzchack in this week’s parsha, Parashat Toldot, I am filled with a wide array of often conflicting emotions. I feel a profound personal connection to Yitzchack, understand his pain and vulnerability on a gut level. At the same time, questions such as these gnaw at me: am I overanalyzing, projecting my own sense of what is right and just onto an ancient text? What was Yitzchack and Rivka’s relationship like and what would inspire Rivka, who in many ways is the individual with the greatest amount of agency in the story to do what she did? How can I square hers and Yaakov’s actions with what I believe Judaism calls all of us to do—to do justly, love kindness and walk humbly with God? And perhaps most importantly for me, how can I bring my own experience as a blind person to this text authentically?

Someone recently asked me if I was bothered by God’s apparent nonintervention. What does that say about our tradition—that our patriarch, Yaakov, received his bracha through outright deception? What does that mean for me, for all of us?

I have sat with that latter question for years. As I read the narrative every year, I am struck by the starkness of it. Yitzchack favors Esau, the hunter, Rivka Yaakov, who is an indoorsy sort of guy. Rivka believes the blessing is rightfully Yaakov’s but as we of course know, Yaakov is the younger of the twins, and the blessing belongs to the older. What to do? Yitzchack is aged, he is blind, and it should be easy enough to manufacture a plan to get Yitzchack to believe he’s giving the blessing to Esau, his favored son. We know how the story proceeds. Yitzchack calls Esau to him, telling him he suspects he is nearing the end of his life and implores him to go hunt game and prepare foods for him so that he can give him his blessing. Rivka, overhearing, devises a plan to deceive her husband. Yaakov initially protests, saying that a curse will befall him if Yitzchack learns of the deception. At Rivka’s insistence that the curse will be upon her if the deception is revealed, Yaakov dresses up in skins reminiscent of those Esau was accustomed to wearing, brings Yitzchack the game he requested and so on. Although it is clear from the pshat of the text that Yaakov and Rivka put much thought into this disguise, our Torah also gives us many hints that perhaps Yitzchack knew that something wasn’t adding up. The tragedy in that, from my perspective, is if it was indeed the case that Yitzchack sensed from the very beginning—highly plausible, in my opinion—that despite his disguise, Yaakov was not in fact Esau, he was completely powerless to do anything about it. It is that powerlessness, on top of the vulnerability he already experiences as an elderly blind man who has more than a few lifetimes of trauma and tragedy to contend with that pulls at my heartstrings and fills me with incredible despair and anger.

“Please come closer so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really Esau or not. The voice is the voice of Yaakov but the hands are the hands of Esau”. Something just isn’t computing. “What isn’t computing”, Yitzchack might be wondering? “My son, Esau, is hairy, Yaakov is smooth, but I hear what I know to be Yaakov’s voice, though his skin is hairy like his brother’s. Is the knowledge I feel I possess deep within actually true, real, complete? I don’t know, I can’t know, because I cannot physically see the man before me. I have to believe that I am not being deceived, and so I do, even as I experience some uncertainty deep down. I don’t have access to all of the information independently that I want. I have a gut feeling that I am not speaking with my eldest son, but I’m going to shut down that nagging feeling. This is a blessing I must give to my beloved Esau. What if it is in fact Esau and I don’t give him the blessing? What then? I’ll go ahead and give this blessing to this son of mine before me with the faith I am acting as I wish to be”. On these verses, Rashi comments that Yitzchack asks to feel whom he believes to be Esau because he senses a different manner in speaking, not only in terms of tone of voice—Esau’s being stronger, harsher—but also because Yaakov mentions God’s name more often.

Of course, Yitzchack later learns that he has been deceived. “Who was it, then, who hunted game and brought it to me?…I blessed him and he is indeed blessed!” (Gen. 27:34). Yitzchack’s strong physical reaction, I believe, speaks to the fact that he was cognizant of his vulnerability and powerlessness to stop this cruel injustice. This is a feeling all too familiar for many of us who are blind or visually impaired. That playground bully who delights in disguising their voice as a test, only to laugh at us when we get it wrong, feeling like we are set up to fail in a system that structurally disempowers us, despite our best efforts to do all of the right things, the countless ways daily that we are made painfully aware of the inherent vulnerability in disability that living in an ableist society entails.

How could this deception have gone on unchecked? God is supposed to intervene on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed! How can I make sense of this in a way that neither apologizes for, nor sugarcoats the text, but allows for an honestly expansive read?

Yaakov, as we know, is a morally flawed character. Indeed, the rabbis are wont to remind us that ours is a tradition that prides itself on our ability to sit with the tensions and complexity inherent in the fact that our ancestors are portrayed in all the realness and messiness that it is to be human.

Yaakov faces a great deal of trickery and deception in his own life and must pay a steep price for that. He is first tricked into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister and later still, tricked into believing that his beloved son, Yosef, has died. And it is only at the very end of his life, as he, too, is losing his eyesight, that he learns his son is indeed alive, though a far cry from who he was a boy. Yaakov works fourteen years for Rachel, his beloved, and his marriage to Leah is a less than happy one, Leah always having to live with the knowledge that she is unloved. What a profound tragedy that is all its own. Had Yaakov not deceived his own father, would any of this have happened? Though we cannot answer that question with any degree of certainty, there is a significant lesson for all of us in this, and I believe this is what God is showing us. Our moral and interpersonal actions have consequences. God knows the secrets of our hearts. God knows when we are not living the way God calls us to live. Yaakov’s two experiences of personal deception allow him to viscerally access the pain he has caused, to understand the multiple emotional layers, the vulnerability, the fear, the anger. Hopefully, those experiences caused him to do tshuvah and a cheshbon hanefesh. Hopefully, he grew from those experiences. If our ancestors teach us anything, it is what not to do. Jokes about our dysfunctional family aren’t for naught. God is showing us, through the complex narratives of our ancestors, the consequences of thinking only of ourselves, using others’ vulnerability in the service of our own aims, and the ways in which that can land an emotional punch.

As we say thrice daily in our Amidah, God gives human beings knowledge, wisdom and understanding. Knowledge is a truly powerful thing. It allows us to learn, generation after generation, more about the experiences of others and how the things we may think of as harmless means of achieving an important aim may leave indelible marks. That knowledge, used intentionally and wisely, with full awareness of the past and our present context can also allow us to co-create a better, more abundant and just future for all, in which the vulnerabilities many of us carry are not used against us, a future in which our means of understanding and relating to the world around us is seen as a normal part of the diversity of the human family and not an aberration. Though God enshrines “lifnei eivir lo titen mikshol” (you shall not place an obstacle before the blind) in Leviticus, referring to physical obstacles, God shows us powerfully in our parsha and throughout Genesis that denying dignity to another is even more wounding. May we grow from our past mistakes and approach each day with the kavannah that we will act rightly in all of our worldly encounters.

Or HaMeir on Bereshit

This piece was written in 5777/2016.

In his commentary on Bereshit, the Or HaMeir refers to two of the earliest Jewish mystical concepts—the notion that the Torah proceeded everything and the notion of a Ma’aseh Bereshit consciousness. When we think about the creation story, which has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the centuries, we tend to think of it as a means of grasping how the physical world around us was created. However, for the Or HaMeir and many other mystics, the creation story opens a window for us into the inner workings of the individual spiritual and religious life. The Torah proceeded creation, which is likened to the waters that preceded everything else. Thus, the Torah is a blueprint for our lives, since it predates physical creation. The Torah is thus able to instruct us in all times and places. Related to this is the notion of Ma’aseh Bereshit consciousness—renewing the work of creation each and every day.

A related concept is the notion that, as we learn later in the creation story, we were created in the image of God so we could be God’s partners in the renewing of creation on a daily basis, creating a world as it should be. This is a momentous task indeed. Though the Or HaMeir does not explicitly reference this idea, he does talk about the notion that the religious life should be rooted in a Ma’aseh Bereshit consciousness. Mitzvot are not merely what they appear to be on the surface—there is much more lying beneath. Though we aspire to be shomrei mitzvot, all of us find ourselves connecting to some mitzvot over others, finding deeper meaning in some practices over others, etc. Indeed, there is also here to be found an idea that individual Jews tend to connect to a specific mitzvah that somehow calls out to their soul.

This notion of an individually meaningful mitzvah I believe is the key to thinking about the religious life and halakhic observance. We tend to think of halakhah as a rigid, unchanging system, and if we are not careful, we can easily do things by rote, instead of doing all of our religious rites and rituals with a sense of profound kavannah, which the Or haMeir is calling us to do here. It is easy to become bored, to daven thrice daily, put on tefillin, even keep Shabbat according to the strictest halakhic interpretation and all the while do so devoid of any kind of spiritual grounding or kavannah.

Too many of us find ourselves despairing of ever being:”good enough Jews” if we aren’t strictly observant. And conversely, too many of us find ourselves going through the motions of a religious life without any sort of devikut or kavannah. What would it look like for us to each pick a mitzvah—any mitzvah—and do it with the Ma’aseh Bereshit consciousness the Or haMeir so beautifully talks about? For those of us who are not so traditionally observant, may this be an opportunity for us to connect deeply with a mitzvah that calls out to our souls. And for those of us who feel bogged down by the minutia of mitzvot, may we find that mitzvah that makes our heart and soul sing and do that mitzvah with the kavannah we wish we could apply to all mitzvot. Starting with that one mitzvah will, God willing lead us to a richly rewarding ritual and spiritual life.