Sunday, November 22, 2015

Parashat Vayishlach 5776 Homeward Bound

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vayishlach 5776
Homeward Bound

For Yaakov, life is never simple. After being abused by his father-in-law Lavan, Yaakov finally makes a break, only to be chased down and confronted by Lavan. After they reach an understanding, Yaakov continues his journey home, but he must contend with his long-estranged brother Esav, who, last we heard, had sworn to kill him. As Yaakov heads toward what he imagines will be a vicious and blood-soaked showdown, he receives a report from his scouts that Esav is on his way to “greet” him, with a force of 400 men to back him up.  

Somehow, the fraught and frightening meeting with Esav passes peacefully; the tension between them is defused, the enmity is neutralized. Yaakov returns to his ancestral home in Israel (Canaan), and takes up residence in the environs of Shechem. And then, just when he thinks he can relax, the reality of being a stranger in his own land shakes him to his core. Yaakov is the head of a single family, a small clan living among larger, more powerful tribes. Although one day this land would be his, now it is no more than as-yet unrealized potential; the Promised Land is just that - a promise. Yaakov is a stranger, a minority in his own land.

The trouble begins innocently enough: Dina, the only daughter in Yaakov’s large family of boy, longs for the company of young women. She ventures out, hoping to strike up friendships with the local girls. Unbeknownst to her, she is spotted by Shechem, the prince of the land, whose lustful gaze is soon followed by action: He kidnaps and defiles Dina. Here, the story takes an unexpected turn: Shechem, an abusive, impetuous and over-indulged lad, falls in love with his victim. Smitten, he turns to his father to help him make the matter right; Shechem, son of the powerful Hamor, now wishes to marry Yaakov’s daughter Dina. 

Let us look at this turn of events in context: One of the reasons Yaakov had left Israel in the first place (aside from the matter of his murderous brother) was to find an appropriate wife. For Yaakov, as for his father Yitzchak, the locals were off limits. Avrahams descendants were not to marry Canaanite women; this was of primary importance. Intermarriage with the locals would mean the loss of their distinct national identity and would therefore jeopardize their unique destiny. This new nascent nation had to remain focused on their mandate, and, therefore, on their otherness. This was brought home most forcefully by the separation from Lavan, who failed to grasp the fundamental nature of this division. Lavan was nonplussed by Yaakovs departure; he envisioned the melding of the various branches of the family into one people. Yaakov had a different vision altogether; he knew that the future of the nation awaited him and his children in the Land of Israel. His mission, as the recipient of the blessings God had given to Avraham, set him and his descendants apart.

For this reason, the Torah is completely silent regarding Dinas feelings: This is not a love story, it is a book about Jewish destiny. Dinas feelings are not pertinent to the course of Jewish history.

Hamor is as insensitive to the great gulf that divides them as Lavan was, and the offer he makes in the hope of gaining Dinas hand for his son speaks volumes: Hamor addresses precisely the issues that Yaakov cannot accept: Let our families intermarry, he says. Let our sons and daughters become one people. In this context, the brothers response is all the more loaded with significance, but also with deceit, and perhaps with some cynicism. In order to assimilate among the descendants of Avraham, they explain, circumcision is required. Hamors family must adopt the sign of the covenant God made with Avraham. This is the very sign that sets them apart. Did the brothers hope their demand would deter the Canaanites? Did they perhaps hope that Shechem and Hamor would begin to realize that this union would not be what they had hoped? Or did the brothers simply use circumcision as a means to the end they had already plotted for Shechem and his family annihilation?

Whatever the brothers motivation may have been, Hamor and Shechem are not deterred. They return home, and explain the plan to their kinsman: For a small price indeed, we will be permitted to marry into the clan of Yaakov, and gradually subsume this people. The family of Yaakov will cease to exist as a distinct entity, and all their possessions will be ours (34:23).  In todays parlance, we may say that they envisioned a more or less hostile takeover of Yaakovs interests: eradication through assimilation. Just as Shechem had already taken what he wanted in all but name, he now advocated that all of his countrymen do the same.

The story devolves into vengeance and massacre: The city of Shechem is eradicated by Shimon and Levi in defense of their sister Dinas honor, but their father Yaakov deplores their violent behavior. For millennia, Jewish thinkers have debated the morality of their actions. Were Shimon and Levi no more than loathsome killers? Were they vigilantes? Had they upheld or violated the law? Were they justified, or had they overreacted? Were their goals and motivations at odds with those of their father, or only the methods they employed to achieve those goals? While exegetes, jurists and moralists continue the debate, one simple truth emerges: This was not what Yaakov hoped for when he headed home. He dreamed of peace, not bloodshed. He sought tranquility, not drama. He wanted to return to the Promised Land and to actively bring about the fulfillment of Jewish destiny the unique destiny that he would bequeath to his children and their descendants.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Audio and Essays Parashat Vayishlach

Audio and Essays Parashat Vayishlach

New Echoes of Eden Project:
Parashat Vayishlach Homeward Bound


Yakov's Struggle; Identifying the Angel of Esav

Yakov and Yisrael

The Death of Rachel

The Ultimate Defeat of Esav by Yosef (Haftorah)

Yakov Esav and Yosef

The Name Yisrael

Theological Echoes of The Confrontation between Yakov and Esav

Kol and Rav -Michal and Meirav; The Secret Identity of King David

Preparing for Battle

Who are You - Yakov or Yisrael?

Preparing for Battle, Praying for Peace

Confronting Your Fears

Give Truth to Yaakov

Yaakov / Yisrael


The Struggle of Jacob

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Remembering Henny Machlis, a truly righteous woman.

(this article appeared in the JERUSALEM POST)
Ari D. Kahn

Hessed: Jerusalem’s treasure
Remembering Henny Machlis, a truly righteous woman.
A few weeks ago, on October 16, a very special woman passed away. Her name was Rebbitzen Henny (Lustig) Machlis. Henny was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met, and I am sure there are countless others who share my opinion. Her life is the stuff of legend.

The Talmud relates tales of wealthy hosts who served their guests copious quantities of food.

Some of these stories sound like hyperbole, and we might be tempted to dismiss them as no more than parables that embellish the truth, but there was one woman who lived among us who, although not particularly wealthy, and perhaps lacking the resources of those Talmudic hosts, served a generous amount of food to staggering numbers of guests. Hundreds of people came to her home every Shabbat, where food, words of Torah, good cheer and hope were shared. The Machlis home is living proof that the Talmudic legends were not invented: people such as these, although rare, do exist.

I have known the Machlis and Lustig families for a very long time. Rabbi Mordechai Machlis’s father, Rabbi Eliyahu, was the principal of my elementary school, Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, and was the rabbi of my grandparents’ synagogue in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. In fact, Rabbi Eliyahu Machlis read the ketuba at my parents’ wedding.

I was privileged to be a guest at the home of Rav Mordechai and Henny in Jerusalem more than 35 years ago, when they were first starting out. The Machlis table was always an interesting place, a meeting spot for a diverse collection of people. Because I had already known both Rav Mordechai and Henny for many years (Henny’s brother was a classmate of mine in high school, and Henny was my sister’s classmate), I always felt comfortable, at home, in their home.

At the time, they were a young couple, and their home was open. Had I been asked to predict the future, I would have assumed that as their family grew and the needs of their own personal lives put greater demands on their time and resources, their idealism and generosity would be forced to yield to the challenges and realities of raising a family. Yet as the years passed, not only did their hospitality fail to slow down, it grew – seemingly exponentially: 20 guests became 50, 50 became 100, then 200 and more.

Their kindness defied logic. It made no sense that a small Jerusalem apartment could hold so many people. Their home called to mind another rabbinic teaching: The Mishna recounts that when the people stood in the Temple, they stood shoulder to shoulder, with no space left unfilled, yet somehow, when they bowed in prayer, there was room for one and all. That same miracle seemed to repeat itself every Shabbat in the Machlis home.

But it was more than merely the number of guests that was astounding; it was the diversity of the people the Machlises hosted that was most impressive. Their home was open to everyone, even the types of people many of us would not want to have at our table. One of the most humbling experiences I have ever had was walking the streets of Jerusalem with Rav Mordechai.

Although we were engrossed in an important conversation, I gradually became aware of something extraordinary: As we walked, we happened upon the city’s unfortunates – homeless, poor and hungry people to whom others might toss a coin or two in condescension and walk on. Rav Mordechai knew each of these people by name.

He knew their stories, their challenges, their medical and emotional conditions. To him, they were not anonymous beggars, they were people; they were cherished guests in his and Henny’s home. While some of us feel special if we have a few guests – especially “important people” – the Machlis home was a haven for anyone and everyone, regardless of stature or status.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that when Henny Machlis was alive, there were no homeless people in Jerusalem; everyone knew that they had a place to go to, a place to get a warm meal, a warm smile, and a place where they would feel welcome, valued, even cherished.

This special feeling was not reserved for old friends from the old neighborhood: Every year for almost 40 years, tens of thousands of people ate, sang, and were inspired in the Machlis home.

In addition to all this, I have very personal reasons to thank Henny. Many years ago, in a faraway place called Flatbush, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, most young people dreamed of growing up and living in Flatbush; at most, they may have dared to dream of owning a big house in New Jersey or Long Island. On Shabbat afternoons, Henny volunteered as a madricha in Bnei Akiva. She spoke to the girls in her charge of a faraway Holy Land, the Land of Israel. She spoke with passion and idealism, and she lit a spark in the souls of those who heard her. One of those girls, my wife Naomi, still remembers those words as if they were spoken only yesterday.

And so, I thank you, Henny, for inspiring Naomi and all the other girls. I thank you for inspiring so many people through your warmth and hospitality, and for enabling me to understand that the sages of the Gemara were not exaggerating: there really were people in Jerusalem who hosted so many guests – not only thousands of years ago, but as recently as a few short weeks ago.

Some legends wilt under careful scrutiny; others grow larger. I challenge people all over the world to put this question to any gathering of Jews: “Have you ever had a Shabbat meal in the Machlis home?” I guarantee you will be shocked at how many people all over the world say “yes.”

Henny, please go before the heavenly throne and pray for your people. Pray for your wonderful family, and pray for the city of Jerusalem – the city you loved so much, the city that will never forget you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Parashat Vayetze 5776 Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vayetze 5776
Climbing Jacobs Ladder

On the run from a furious brother who is plotting his demise, Yaakov finally falls to the ground in exhaustion and allows himself to sleep. His mind still racing, he wonders how the situation has spun so far out of control. Only yesterday, things had seemed perfect, even idyllic; only yesterday, he had been part of a family, but today tears and screams drown out all civil communication. They had managed to get along, despite their differences; but now – chaos. He had been put in an impossible situation. Should he respect his mother or his father? No child should ever be forced to make such a choice. There was no easy, clear solution: Obeying his mother meant deceiving his father. Honoring his father meant defying his mother. And then there was the matter of his brother, who wanted him dead.

And all this, over some blessings. Were they really worth this drama? Were they worth dying for? Moreover, who was to say that ill-gotten blessings would work? This was not some magical spell that merely needed to be uttered in order to bring about the desired result; this was a prayer, meant to open the very heavens and bring about Divine aid and abundance. Could blessings attained surreptitiously bring about such results? What if God did not agree with his mother, and the stolen blessings would prove worthless?

As Yaakov drifted off to sleep (or, perhaps, not really sleep), he floated into an alternative consciousness. A new reality swept over him; he had an epiphany. All at once, everything he saw was holy, beautiful, awe-inspiring. The heavens opened, and he saw the entrance, a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels climbing up and down. Yaakovs first reaction might well have been relief, even joy: God had not rejected him because of his behavior. Quite the opposite: He was granted revelation. As his eyes followed the ladder up toward heaven, he saw a glimpse of images that were so holy, they were beyond imagination.

And then, Yaakov heard a voice he had never heard before - yet the sound was strangely familiar and unmistakable: God spoke to him, introduced Himself, and promised him great things: First, that the land he was lying on would one day be his. Second, God assured him that he would have many children who would burst forth in every direction, and, third, that God would protect him. And then, the voice was still.

If we consider this revelation, first in terms of the implication that God had chosen Yaakov, and additionally in terms of the blessings that make up the content of the revelation, we might expect Yaakov to have reacted with unqualified, unmitigated joy. And yet, Yaakovs response was far more circumspect; his words reflect a certain dread or fear behind the awe he expressed. Apparently, the content of Gods communication gave Yaakov cause for worry, not because of what He said, but because of what He did not say. Something was missing, and recent events make it clear what Yaakov had hoped to hear but did not.

Yitzchak had given Yaakov two separate sets of blessings: One set were blessings that had always been intended for him. As he sent him away to begin his journey, Yitzchak blessed Yaakov, knowing precisely whom he was, with the blessings given to Avraham: The Promised Land and a great nation of descendants to inherit it. This blessing was echoed in the promises Yaakov had just been given by God Himself. On the other hand, the blessing he acquired by dressing up as his brother Esav, the blessing he had taken surreptitiously, the blessing that was so important to his mother, promised physical bounty, abundance and power. When God spoke to Yaakov, He was silent regarding this blessing - and that silence was deafening; Yaakov heard it loud and clear. The blessings for great wealth were not repeated; apparently, they were not in his future.

When Yaakov awakes, he makes declarations and promises: He will build a house for God, and if God gives him the smallest modicum of physical security clothes on his back, bread on his plate he will, in turn, give one tenth back to the Almighty. Suddenly, for Yaakov, the blessings he had gone to such great lengths to acquire are no longer important. The physical world that had seemed so critically important pales in contrast with the sublime vision he has just been shown. Yaakov suddenly understands that he can be content to live his life with only a bare minimum of physical wealth - and he vows to dedicate even that minimal wealth to God. Yaakov sees the ladder, with its feet on the ground and its head in heaven, and he draws a remarkable conclusion: He himself can be like that ladder. He can live simultaneously in the physical and spiritual worlds. He can bridge the gap, and live his life as a quest to achieve spirituality and holiness, continually climbing up the ladder from earth to heaven. At that moment, he vows to devote his physical resources to his quest for holiness, and to climb that ladder just as he saw the angels do.

With this realization, Yaakov can continue on his journey. Only when he understands that wealth and power are not the true blessing is he able to travel forth and to succeed. Now that he fully understands the true nature and significance of the blessings he received from his father, he becomes worthy of the blessings his mother instructed him to acquire. The physical bounty with which he was blessed becomes a tool in the service of the greater blessings of spirituality and holiness. Wealth is not the real gift; rather, true blessing is born of figuring out how to take the physical stuff God gives us and use it to construct our own ladder to heaven. A blessed life is one spent climbing the ladder and transforming physical bounty into spiritual wealth.

For a more in-depth analysis see:
Echoes of Eden