Category Archives: Torah

Esav the Dutiful; Esav the Acquiescent

This past shabbos, I was thinking about the fascinating encounter between Yakov and Esav

Yakov had been gone for 20 years, and Esav very likely felt guilt over it.  It was a combination of Esav’s threat on Yakov’s life and Rivka’s pretext about marriage that sent him away.  And even if Rivka’s pretext has truth (see that Esav immediately responds by marrying “from the family” i.e. Yishmael’s daughter), Esav likely feels some guilt that Yakov ran in a hurry, without the entourage and gifts his grandfather sent to bring his mother.  Esav might feel that he caused Yakov to run to Charan with nothing, and significantly hampered his ability to find said wife, coming to down with no money for a dowry.  And yet Yakov returns with a huge family: not just one wife, but two, with two concubines on top of that; 11 boys and a girl; and massive wealth.  Esav is relieved and genuinely happy to see that Yakov is successful.

Moreoever, he’s happy to see his brother, with genuine love and wanting to reconcile.

But there’s another element underlying the happy reunion.  Esav must remember the brachos from Yitzchak, the ones he perceives were intended for him but went to Yakov.  Yakov’s family and massive wealth can surely be seen as a fulfillment of the bracha he got from Yitzchak, and form the undercurrent of the interaction. Esav tells Yakov to keep his gift, “Yesh li rav” – I have a lot – meaning, “Father blessed me with material wealth, I don’t need sheep from you.”  What’s not said, is what Esav DOES need from Yakov.  And Yakov sticks a dagger in right away.  Implicit in Esav’s words are a recognition that with the material blessings fulfilled, the other part of the bracha is fulfilled as well: Yakov has essentially been put in charge of the family. Despite being the older brother, Esav is subordinate to Yakov. What’s fascinating to me is that he knows it, and accepts it.  And Yakov knows it to. Yakov’s response to “I have much” is “I have everything” – “yesh li col.” As if to say “yes, I know you have material wealth, and a strong army, but so do I, and I have one more thing: father’s designated leadership.

And then this proceeds one step further.  Esav acknowledges Yakov’s leadership, and essentially asks to be maintain his status as part of the family.  Let us live together, come with me.  Let me have a part of our ancestral. divinely gifted homeland.  And Yakov rejects him.  He makes up an excuse that’s easily deflected (“ok, no problem, we’ll *all* travel slowly”) and tells Esav to be on his way.  Fascinatingly, Esav submits to Yakov’s will.  Esav wants to be part of the Abrahamic tradition, the chosen family, and Yakov says no, and Esav accepts this!

To me, Esav shows both tremendous maturity and strength at this, as well as further evidence of his fatal flaw.

Esav is frequently demonized in the rabinnic literature as the evil diametric opposite of saintly Yakov.  The text, however, doesn’t usually bear this out.  Esav submits to his father’s will and allows his brother take the leadership role and sole proprietorship of the Abrahamic family.  There is a certain strength to acknowledging and accepting the will of the leadership.

However, to me, Esav’s fatal flaw (and perhaps the reason he was excluded from the family?) is that he, perhaps, is *too* willing to accept “fate” or “destiny.”  Aside from this episode, when perhaps Esav should have protested, or insisted to Yakov to allow him into the family, or gone to Yitzchak and Rivka (still alive at this point) and, having conceded leadership, begged to at least remain part of the family.  But he doesn’t.  He moves on, moves out and goes away.  There’s another episode where he does a similar thing.  When the boys are younger, at the story of the sale of the birthright.  Esav has sold his birthright, and even the most favorable reading of the story (that he truly was starving, and the initial bargaining was under duress), faults Esav for failing to protest the sale afterward.  Having recovered from his imminent doom, and being fed and revived, it was incumbent on Esav to protest the sale, unwind the transaction as being under duress and reclaim his birthright.  But he doesn’t.  He accepts his fate and walks away.  And it is only at that point that Torah describes him as despising his birthright.

Why is this so important?  Let’s think back to the actions of the father of the family Esav seeks to maintain status in: Avraham.  Though there are instances where Avraham acquiesces (the akeida being a famous example) to the word of God, perhaps the story most indicative of Avraham’s caring for others and his general world view is his “negotiation” with God over the fate of Sodom.  He doesn’t accept fate; he fights back.  He “argues” with God, going back and forth for six rounds of negotiating (50, 45, 40, 30, 20, 10).

This is Avraham’s central quality: acquiescent to the word of God at times, but unwilling to accept fate at others.  There are times when it is right to fight (even if the the fight is a losing cause).  Esav, despite his description as a hunter and man of the field, may have been just a bit too passive when it came to matters of spirituality and the family future.  It was thus that he could not serve as leader, ceding the role to Yakov, and it was thus that he even gave away his place in the family.


Cleaning the Pipes

If you’re not following Dr. Ruth on Twitter, you are missing out.

For instance, there was this nugget a little earlier today:

Men who ejaculate 5x/week in their 20s reduce risk of getting prostate cancer later by a third. Protect yourself guys.

I love that she not only lays out the science, but encourages men to “protect” themselves by, ya know, 5x/week.

And here’s where I get to thinking deeply in terms of religion.  Our particular brand (and this is by no means specific to Judaism) frowns on what is probably the most common male method for getting to ejaculation.  Wasting and all that.  And unless a guy’s sexual partner is a real champ (and even if so, during those two weeks he’s not allowed to do anything), pretty much the only way to get to 5 times a week.

So what does this mean?  If the halacha knew that there were tangible, identifiable benefits to masturbation, would it still be assur?  With slightly better knowledge, scientifically, of men’s health and internal plumbing, should the halachic attitudes change?

For instance, if it’s shown that regular maintenance of the plumbing system (flushing the old, to make way for fresh new sperm) is beneficial not only for a man’s health (as above) but also increases the likelihood of insemination and healthy children during copulation, does that change the calculus?

I know my overall mentality on almost everything is that halachah should adapt, especially in the face of better scientific knowledge, and this is no different.  I guess I just wanted a reason to write about masturbation, ejaculation and halachah.

/Achievement unlocked

Thoughts on Parshat B’Shalach

There’s a lot going on in this week’s parsha that’s interesting.  (See DovBear’s parsha notes for some of them).

One thing I always found curious is the little bit of foreshadowing at the end of the story of the mon (Shmot 16:35):

וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אָכְלוּ אֶת-הַמָּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה–עַד-בֹּאָם, אֶל-אֶרֶץ נוֹשָׁבֶת:  אֶת-הַמָּן, אָכְלוּ–עַד-בֹּאָם, אֶל-קְצֵה אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן.

And the children of Israel did eat the manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat the manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan.

At this point in the story, the reader (the uninformed reader, first time through) has no inclination that the Jews will wander in the desert for 40 years.  The reader must read this and say “why is it going to take 40 years to reach the edge of Canaan?”

I don’t know if there’s a deep spiritual or even textual answer other than “the torah was written after the story of the meraglim, and the writer knew what would happen, and dropped it in.”  But I wonder what purpose it serves.

The second curious thing to me is, when Hashem says he’s providing the mon in order to test the Israelites, what exactly is the test?

From Hashem’s anger (starting in pasuk 28) it seems the main concern is Shabbat.  Hashem says “I will give them double on Friday,” people went out on shabbos anyway to collect and Hashem gets mad.

Interestingly, Moshe gets mad at the Israelites for a completely different reason: he tells them not to leave any overnight, and they do anyway, and it spoils and starts getting “wormy.”

I think the two are linked: leaving over is bad each day.  It’s not only not bad, but positively commanded, however, to leave over on Friday night.  Both failures evidence a lack of trust that God will continue to provide.

(As an aside, I find it interesting that God doesn’t say he’s going to test their trust in his ability to provide.  He says he’s going to test their adherence to his rules.  A little disconnect, that again, I’m not sure what, if anything, is the significance, I’m just pointing it out.)

I remember a great shiur by R’ Yitzcak Etshalomon this, and beautiful understanding of the actual test, where he quotes R. Yaakov Medan, who

points out that the command for each person to restrict himself to a daily portion for each member of the household represented not only a good deal of faith in God – but also tremendous self-restraint and concern for one’s fellow. This is how he explains the “test” of the Mahn (16:4) – that we were tested to see how much concern each of us could demonstrate for our fellow, knowing that if we took more than our portion, someone else would go hungry. Indeed, the B’nei Yisra’el passed this test with flying colors! (v. 18) For a slave people, wandering in a desert to exercise this much self-restraint was a demonstration of their readiness to stand as a unified nation and to enter into a covenant which includes mutual responsibility.

(Read the rest of the shiur for the context of the test within the greater theme of preparation for Sinai.)

I really like the idea of two tests: a bein adam l’chavero and a bein adam lamakom within the same episode.  And I find it really intersting and ironic (i.e. the opposite of what would be expected) that they passed the bein adam l’chavero and failed the bein adam lamakom.


Yeah, I haven’t blogged much lately, and the primary reason, aside from the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament, is that I finally allowed myself to give in to the yearly requests from my shul to lain Megillat Esther.

See, if I knew how to lain Megillat Esther, this would be less of a problem.  Now, we are cruisin’ for a train wreck.

So, yeah, I basically know the trup.  But that sucker’s long and confusing and hard to memorize.

Interested to see how I do?  Stop by the YIW on Purim Morning.  And don’t blow my cover that I’m doing it all wrong as a “Purim Shpeil” reading.

In the meantime, reacquaint yourself with some of my previous writings on the Megillah.

Was Achashverosh an Anti-Semite?

The Megillah as Royal Power Play.

Yosef’s Bones

There’s something in this week’s parsha that struck me as odd.  Something I had taken for granted for years, and for some reason only now, stood out.

We are told early in B’Shalach that Moshe took Yosef’s bones with him when B”Y left Egypt.  Why?

כִּי הַשְׁבֵּעַ הִשְׁבִּיעַ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶתְכֶם, וְהַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת-עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה אִתְּכֶם.

for [Joseph] had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely remember you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you.

The more I got to thinking about this, the more things about this whole story struck me as odd.

First, when Yosef was alive, B”Y weren’t in any plight.  It’s only after Yosef and his entire generation die off that the Jews become enslaved.  So why would Yosef even consider the idea that they would need to be “remembered” or “redeemed.”  From Yosef’s perspective, things are fine.  Remember, he thinks he’s been sent to Egypt to prepare things and make sure that his family has a place to go.  Even if he sees the arrangement as temporary, there’s no way he can concieve of the scope of the hardship that they endured, the length of the subjugation and the necessity for a miraculous intervention by God to take the people out.  There’s no reason for Yosef to think anything other than “when we want to go back, we’ll leave” and there’s no reason for him to think that it will be this massive camp of 600,000 people leaving in mass exodus.

Second, the Torah generally refers to “Bnei Yisrael” to refer to the nation.  But when Yosef is alive, he’s one of 70, or if there were some more kids born, 100 or 150 max.  That’s not a nation, it’s a big family.  A clan.  Who is he making this pact with?  Who is he making swear?  Did they have a leader?  Wouldn’t it naturally have been him?  Maybe one of his brothers after his father dies?  So why not say Yosef made his brothers (or Yehuda or Reuven, the only two other viable options for leader) swear.  Why use the national term, when there was no nation?

Third, what about the rest of the brothers?  Why is Yosef the only one mentioned as wanting his bones brought out of Egypt with them when they leave (assuming the first two questions have satisfactory answers).  I suppose it’s possible that the other brothers were allowed to be buried in E”Y when they died, and this was only as issue for Yosef being the Vice-Roy, who Egypt would insist be buried there.  But at some point, when there was enough people dying, burials started in Egypt.  Why aren’t those bones considered worthy of being brought out of Egypt as well?

Finally, why is Moshe doing this?  And how is Moshe doing this?  Presumably, Yosef is preserved and enterred somewhere.  I don’t have trouble with it being common knowledge where this is.  But how does Moshe just go there and swipe the bones?  That seems odd to me.  And, back to the first question of this section, why Moshe?  Moshe’s been very busy this entire time, leading and whatnot, and he’s gotta make a detour to go get some bones from some royal mauseleum (possibly a pyramid)?  He can’t send anyone else, maybe someone from Yosef’s lineage?  This seems like the kind of thing that would fall to, if anyone, the elders of the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe, not to Moshe personally.  Even if we assume that the Israelite clan that came to Egypt had some sort of mechanism for transmission of long-term vows, and that it was passed down from generation, that “hey, if this ever gets really bad, and we need to leave, we have to take Yosef with us” would that be something passed to the elders?  Sure.  But Moshe isn’t in an “elder” role at any point, and wouldn’t be privy to this mesorah (unless it was pervasive, that every single child learned it, which seems implausible to me) and wouldn’t be tasked with it, especially having grown up in the house of Pharaoh.  Did someone say to Moshe, once he takes the Supreme Leadership of the Children of Israel (a role that was created for him, btw, not one he assumed from someone else), “oh, hey, now you’ve gotta get Yosef’s bones!”??  Seems doubtful to me.  Before Moshe, there is no centralized leadership, no one person who would be tasked with taking Yosef’s bones if they left at any point.  Not to mention that they never considered the possibility of leaving.  So who did Moshe inherit this “job” from?  Why Moshe?

Yeah, so I don’t really have any answers to this quandry, but I would love to hear from some people in the comments if anyone does.

Have a nice Shabbos Shira.  Try to think of me when you’re listening to layning tomorrow.

What Was The Second Plague?

The Torah calls is “tzfardea,” which, in modern Hebrew, is what we know in English as “frog.”  But is it that simple?

Rabbi Nosson Slifkin has a detailed post about the analysis from midrashic texts about the qualities of the animals in the plague, trying to determine whether it was frogs or crocodiles.

Without getting too deeply into this, wouldn’t crocs, which are much more dangerous than frogs (which are basically harmless, but just annoying) be more plague-y?  I mean, if you were an Egyptian, wouldn’t a swarm of crocs coming out of the Nile and into your house be much more frightening?

Revisionist History

An interesting little revisionist history by Moshe this week.

To begin his major speech to B”Y, he goes off on a little “how we got here” background story.  Of course, he would have to explain why they wandered around in the desert for 40 years, so of course has to go into that.

Now, one might certainly question the wisdom of reminding the Jews about their crying and complaining and general fear about going to conquer Israel right before they are about to go conquer Israel, but Moshe knew what he was doing.

What’s interesting, is that Moshe twisted the story.  When he retells it, the report of the spies was entirely positive.  He completely ignores the negative report of the spies, and their recommendation that the Jews not go.  He skips from the “great land” portion of the report to the “we ain’t going” response.  Why?

Perhaps he didn’t want to remind the Jews of the negative part of the report.  But then he ultimately does anyway, by repeating their reasoning for not wanting to go.  So why change the story?

I don’t think Rashi addresses this, and I don’t have a Mikraot Gedolot at work.  Anyone want to chime in?