Skip to content

Reflections on the Orlando Shooting

Before we recite the prayers for government of the United States and Israel, I want to take a few moments to reflect on the horrific shooting that took place last weekend in Orlando.  

I’ve been commenting to many people that Shavuot at Netivot was really amazing, and in particular last Monday highlighted for me Netivot at its best.  I thought that the divrei Torah and davening in shul were fantastic, the kidush celebrating the Zuckerbergs, and then the program in the afternoon celebrating the kids’ learning.  It was really an amazing example of what our shul is. 

And while we were enjoying such a glorious Yom Tov there were already some who were aware of what had happened the night before in Orlando and some – myself included – who remained in our isolated bubble. 

I chose to address what happened in Orlando at this point in the davening because the way in which we recite the prayers for the government is one of the ways that makes our shul and our community unique.  I believe that our shul has a unique response to offer in wake of the tragedy.

The parsha this week contains in it the description of the Sotah – a woman who is suspected of adultery by her husband.  The woman is subjected to a “trial by ordeal” to determine if she has in fact been unfaithful.  It is a very difficult and troubling law.  One detail of the Sotah ritual is that the curses that would befall her were written out with God’s name, ,which was then submerged in a mixture of water and was erased.  This is one of the most terrible things that can be done – to erase God’s name and many explain that it was done to impress upon the woman the severity of the accusations and of the crime if she is guilty.  But the Talmud (Shabbat 116a) gives a very different explanation.  The Talmud states that God’s name was erased as part of the Sotah ritual in order להביא שלום בין איש לאשה – to bring peace between husband and wife.  Clearly we are dealing with a  marriage under stress and the relationship between this couple is far from ideal.  And Hashem tells us that if it will help to heal their relationship, to bring peace to the world, then He is willing to let His name be erased.

It is this attitude that has to inform our reaction to what happened in Orlando.  This incident has raised many important issues that our society continues to wrestle with:  The status of those who are GLBTQ; gun control; what our response to terrorism and extremism ought to be, etc.  These are important issues that must be hashed out.  But taking our cue from Hashem, they must be hashed out with a sense of love and a desire to bring peace and compassion to the world.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a couple of paragraphs of a very powerful letter written by Rabbi Shai Held, a Conservative rabbi from whom I’ve had the privilege of learning and interacting.  The entirety of Rabbi Held’s letter is included below.  I have bolded the parts that I read in shul: (

An Open Letter to People Who Are LGBTQ

These are excruciating days in America, but I imagine that they are particularly painful for you.

I’d like to share a message that I believe lies at the very heart of Jewish theology: God loves you. (Don’t let anyone tell you that this idea is exclusively Christian; it isn’t.)

Rabbi Akiva, one of Judaism’s greatest sages, tells us that each and every human being is beloved by God because we are—all of us, without exception—created in the image of God. In other words, you don’t need to earn God’s love; it is given to you with your existence, the gift of a loving God.

No amount of hatred or bigotry can ever change that simple but stunning fact: as a human being, you matter, and matter ultimately.

One of the biggest problems with religion is that people stubbornly, insistently reduce God to their own size; they imagine that God loves the same people they love, and that God hates the people they hate. This is not just insidious theology; it’s actually idolatry, because people are just worshiping a blown up version of themselves. So let me say it simply: God’s love transcends all of that.

When your parents reject you, God loves you; when your friends or classmates make fun of you, God loves you; when your priest, minister, imam, or rabbi tells you that you are an abomination, God loves you; when politicians cater to people’s basest prejudices, God loves you. No matter how many times and in how many ways people make you feel less than human, God knows otherwise, and God loves you. When you feel frightened, or abandoned, or humiliated, I hope the unshakeable conviction that God loves you can help hold you and enable you to persevere.

What it really means to be a religious person is to strive to love the people God loves—which means, ultimately, to try to love everyone. Where this is concerned, the history of human civilization is filled with one horrific failure after another. White people still struggle to see that people of color are no less human, and no less precious than they; people who are wealthy often forget that people who are poor are no less human, and no less precious, than they; people who are able-bodied all too often fail to see that people with disabilities are no less human, and no less precious, than they; and yes, people who are straight are just beginning to see that people of varying sexual orientations and identities are no less human, and no less precious, than they. As a theologian and a pastor, I would just like to beg you: don’t let other people’s confusions and biases make you forget: God loves you, and you are no less human, and no less precious than anyone else.

As a straight man, I want to say without equivocation: I stand with you. And I hope that every person who has ever considered me their teacher stands with you as well. And I look forward to the day when humanity as a whole can stand together and say with one voice: each and every one of us is created in the image of God, and is therefore infinitely valuable. No one of us is less human, or less precious than any other.

In these dark days, I extend to you my heart as well as my hand. More people are with you than perhaps you know, or even imagine. May God bless you.

Overview of the Halachot of Purim 5776

Purim is the ultimate celebration of a nes nistar – a hidden miracle. Though God does not have an explicit role in the story, it is clear that God was very much in control “behind the scenes.” The Halachot of Purim help to ensure that our celebration has religious and spiritual purpose.
Chag Purim Sameach!

  1. Ta’anit Esther – The day before Purim is the fast of Esther. This year we observe Ta’anit Esther on Wednesday March 23(13 Adar). The fast is a minor fast, lasting from sunrise to sunset. If anyone is feeling weak or sick throughout the day or has legitimate medical reasons why fasting is not safe for them, they need not fast –since it is a minor fast we are lenient. Like all fast days, Ta’anit Esther is dedicated to prayer and penitence and should be used to help us prepare spiritually for Purim. Even those not fasting should maintain the solemnity of the day.
    Those who are able should extend their fast until the completion of Megilah reading and Ma’ariv. If this is too much of a difficulty it is okay to break the fast after 7:46pm.


  1. Parshat Zachor – The Shabbat preceding Purim is Shabbat Zachor, during which we fulfill our yearly obligation to read the section from the Torah describing Amalek’s war against the Children of Israel and our perpetual battle against evil and injustice. Men and women have a biblical obligation to hear the reading of Zachor.
    We will have an additional reading of Parshat Zachor at the conclusion of davening Shabbat morning.


  1. Megilah reading – One of the essential mitzvoth of Purim is to hear Megilat Esther at night and in the day. Men and women are equally obligated in this mitzvah. It is important to hear every word of the Megillah. If one misses a word, they may read it to themselves from a book and then catch up with the public reading (however, one must hear the majority of the Megilah from a kosher Megilah scroll). When making noise to blot out Haman’s name, it is important to not make noise at any other time.
    When answering amen to the She-hechiyanu blessing said over the Megilah, one should have in mind that the brachah covers the other mitzvot of Purim as well.


  1. Matanot la-Evyonim – One of the mitzvot of Purim is to distribute matanot la-evyonim – gifts to the poor – on Purim day, to ensure that they are able to properly participate in Purim celebrations. Netivot will collect funds for matanot la-evyonim to be distributed to Ahavas Yisrael.

 How much to give

The minimum that one must contribute to fulfill this mitzvah is enough to buy a meal. One may choose to gauge that based on the cost of a typical meal for you (and your family).  Another way would be based on what you are spending on the Purim Seuda (festive meal).

In making these calculations, I urge you to heed the words of the Mishnah Berurah in Orach Chayim 694:3 “It is best to increase money to the poor than to increase expenses for one’s seudah or mishloach manot to one’s friends, for there is no joy greater and more glorified than to bring joy to the hearts of the poor, orphans and widows. Thus one emulates the Shechinah (Divine presence)…” If you plan on sending mishloach manot to many friends and/or to pay money for a costume, it is important to give a comparable amount for matanot la-evyonim.

 Other forms of Tzedakah

Machatzit ha-Shekel (Half Shekel) – There is a minhag to imitate the practice in the times of the Temple of giving a half-Shekel donation to charity. This is done by offering three half-dollar coins to represent the three donations collected in the Temple. The practice is to lift the half-dollar coins provided and exchange them with a comparable amount of money (at least $1.50) and then return the coins for others to use.

Tzedakah to all who ask – The Shulchan Aruch (694:3) rules that one may not refuse to give tzedakah to anyone who asks for it on Purim. Many have the custom to carry coins with them all day in case someone asks for tzedakah.


  1. Mishloach Manot — Every person has an obligation to send at least one Mishloach Manot Purim gift to another Jew on Purim day. Minimally, this package must contain two types of food that are ready to be eaten. Some have the custom to hand deliver one package and send another package via a messenger.

In order to fulfill the mitzvah, you must send at least one actual package of foods. Sending through communal organizations is a beautiful way to bring joy to your friends on Purim, but does not fulfill the essential obligation. The reason is that mishloach manot must be “ish le-re’ehu” one person to another, and not through a corporation or in partnership with others.


  1. Seudah (Festive Meal) — The final mitzvah of Purim is to have a festive meal. The minimum requirement for the seuda is to have a meal with bread. However, it is preferable to have a festive meal with friends. Words of Torah and festive songs should be included.

The Purim seudah may be eaten all day long, though the Rema (Orach Chayim 695:2) writes that it should ideally be eaten in the afternoon after one has prayed Mincha. The Rema also cautions that though the seuda may extend into the night of the 15th of Adar, the majority of the meal should be eaten during Purim day.


The Shulchan Aruch (OH 695:2) rules that a person must become besumei on Purim until they reach the point of not knowing the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.” Most authorities understand besumei to mean “get drunk on wine.” From here emerges the practice that many have to become intoxicated on Purim.

There are a few things that must be noted:

  1. The Rema on the spot says that one need not get drunk to fulfill this dictate. Rather, they should take a nap and while they are sleeping they will not know the difference.
  2. At no point does Judaism demand that we place ourselves at risk. Alcohol can be very dangerous if consumed in excess. It is crucial that one be safe at all times.
  3. There is absolutely no Halachic imperative to drink at night. The ruling applies only to the Seudah.


  1. Al ha-Nisim – Al ha-Nissim is recited during the Amidah and Birkat ha-Mazon. If one forgets during the Amidah, they need not repeat it.


  1. Aveilim/Mourners – Mourners are obligated in all the mitzvot of Purim, however the manner in which they observe them is tempered. Thus, the custom is that a mourner does not receive Mishloach Manot (though his or her family may) and a mourner should send mishloach manot to at least one Jew.
    Mourners should participate in a small, private Purim Seudah, rather than a large gathering with excessive levity.



Planning Ahead: Lessons from Rajon Rondo and Acacia Wood

Good Shabbos. This morning’s d’var Torah is inspired by a question that I was recently asked. I will come to it shortly.

In preparing my speech this week, I was reminded of a favorite story that happened several years ago. When Yisrael, our oldest child was a little baby and Toby and I were working at Brandeis, we sent him to a local daycare center. One day I went to pick him up from daycare and there was some major excitement at the center. As I went in to find Yisrael I saw three or four employees giving a tour of the center to someone. It turns out it was Rajon Rondo. That name may not mean that much to any of you, but let me assure you it was a big deal. Rondo was the point guard of the Boston Celtics. They had just won the championship and he was the team’s rising star. He wasn’t a big deal in Boston, he was a huge deal. It turns out that his daughter had just started going to the daycare center.

Well, all of the parents and teachers were awestruck at seeing this celebrity, myself included. But we were also confused because we didn’t know what we were supposed to do. Should I run up to him and ask for an autograph (nowadays, we would also have to debate whether asking for a Selfie is appropriate)? Maybe play it cool like it’s no big deal. I was tempted to walk up to him and ask if he is the one who has to wake up to change diapers in the middle of the night at his house.

In the end, no one did anything. We all stood there dumbfounded because we did not know what Rondo wanted from us. We didn’t know how he wanted to be treated in that situation.

I’ll come back to the Rondo story as well.

This week’s parsha reviews the essential components of the Mishkan. It opens with a list of all the supplies that were needed for the construction:

Exodus 35:4-9:


וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֥ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹֽר׃ קְח֨וּ מֵֽאִתְּכֶ֤ם תְּרוּמָה֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה כֹּ֚ל נְדִ֣יב לִבּ֔וֹ יְבִיאֶ֕הָ אֵ֖ת תְּרוּמַ֣ת יְהוָ֑ה זָהָ֥ב וָכֶ֖סֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת׃ וּתְכֵ֧לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֛ן וְתוֹלַ֥עַת שָׁנִ֖י וְשֵׁ֥שׁ וְעִזִּֽים׃ וְעֹרֹ֨ת אֵילִ֧ם מְאָדָּמִ֛ים וְעֹרֹ֥ת תְּחָשִׁ֖ים וַעֲצֵ֥י שִׂטִּֽים׃ וְשֶׁ֖מֶן לַמָּא֑וֹר וּבְשָׂמִים֙ לְשֶׁ֣מֶן הַמִּשְׁחָ֔ה וְלִקְטֹ֖רֶת הַסַּמִּֽים׃ וְאַ֨בְנֵי־שֹׁ֔הַם וְאַבְנֵ֖י מִלֻּאִ֑ים לָאֵפ֖וֹד וְלַחֹֽשֶׁן׃

And Moses spoke unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘This is the thing which the LORD commanded, saying: Take ye from among you an offering unto the LORD, whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, the LORD’S offering: gold, and silver, and brass; and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats ’hair; and rams ’skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia-wood; and oil for the light, and spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense; and onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate.

I want to focus on the עצי שטים, acacia wood.

It was used for many of the components of the משכן and for many of the כלים.

Planks, קרשים (36:20-37)

The Aron, ארון (37:1-9)

The Shulchan שלחן (37:10-16)

The altars מזבח הקטרת (37:25-29) מזבח העולה (38:1-8)

The question arises as to where they got all of this acacia wood. The Ibn Ezra (peirush ha-aroch, Shemot 25:5) suggests that the simplest explanation is that there must have been a forest or grove of acacia trees next to Har Sinai. While this answer makes perfect sense, it is not terribly interesting. Rashi, following the Midrashic tradition gives a much more interesting answer to the question of where did B’nei Yisrael get acacia wood in the desert.

Twice in Parshat Terumah Rashi quotes the Midrashic tradition that the עצי שטים were planted by Ya’akov when he came down to Egypt. Ya’akov saw through prophecy that Hashem would require of B’nei Yisrael to build a Mishkan using such wood and Ya’akov wanted to ensure that the wood would be ready for them. According to this, B’nei Yisrael carried the acacia wood with them as they left Egypt. For example, Rashi on Shemot 25:

Rashi on Exodus 25:5:3:

ועצי שטים וּמֵאַיִן הָיוּ לָהֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר? פֵּרַשׁ רַבִּי תַּנְחוּמָא: יַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ צָפָה בְּרוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ שֶׁעֲתִידִין יִשְׂרָאֵל לִבְנוֹת מִשְׁכָּן בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהֵבִיא אֲרָזִים לְמִצְרַיִם וּנְטָעָם, וְצִוָּה לְבָנָיו לִטְּלָם עִמָּהֶם כְּשֶׁיֵּצְאוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם:

ועצי שטים AND SHITTIM WOOD — But from where did they get this in the wilderness? Rabbi Tanchuma explained it thus: Our father Jacob foresaw by the gift of the Holy Spirit that Israel would once build a Tabernacle in the wilderness: he therefore brought cedars to Egypt and planted them there, and bade his children take these with them when they would leave Egypt (Tanchuma; cf. Bereishit Rabbah 94 and Rashi on Exodus 26:15).

And this is not the end of the story of the acacia wood. The Torah notes that on his way to Egypt, Ya’akov stops at Be’er Sheva to offer sacrifices:

Genesis 46:1:

וַיִּסַּ֤ע יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וַיָּבֹ֖א בְּאֵ֣רָה שָּׁ֑בַע וַיִּזְבַּ֣ח זְבָחִ֔ים לֵאלֹהֵ֖י אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק׃

And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beer-sheba, and offered sacrifices unto the God of his father Isaac.

The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 94:4) tells us that there was a second reason for his detour. שהלך לקץ אזים שנטע אברהם זקנו בבאר שבע. – He went to cut down the trees that his grandfather Abraham had planted in Be’er Sheva. This points us back to Breishit 21. After the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael, and after Avraham makes a covenant with Avimelech, and interestingly right before we read of the story of the Akeidah, we find:

Genesis 21:33:

וַיִּטַּ֥ע אֶ֖שֶׁל בִּבְאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיִּ֨קְרָא־שָׁ֔ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה אֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם׃

And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

The meaning of the word eshel is unclear, and many possibilities are offered by the mefarshim (commentaries).

  • Rashi records two possibilities: either it means an orchard of fruit trees with which to feed his guests, or it means an inn to host travelers.
  • The Rashbam maintains that Avraham’s eshel was an orchard of trees where Avraham would go to pray.
  • In the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, R. Nehemiah is cited as saying that the word eshel is related to the Hebrew word for ask (sha’al). According to this understanding Avraham would say to his guests, “Ask for whatever you would like and I will give it to you.”
  • Finally, the Radak comments that the word eshel is an acronym for the words ochel, shtia, leviah – food drink and escort. Avraham taught the residents of Be’er Sheva that to properly welcome guests into their city they must provide these three things.

Whatever, the exact meaning of the word Eshel is, it is clear that the Midrash wants to connect the trees prepared by Yaakov for the construction of the Mishkan with the eshel planted by Avraham. Not only does this create a powerful historical connection between the generation of the desert and their ancestor Avraham. It emphasizes that the same values stressed by Avraham are integral to the Mishkan as well. In the eyes of our sages, a Mishkan in which Hashem dwells among the Jewish people is possible only if it is built with a commitment to the values and lessons instilled by Avraham avinu. Though we no longer have a physical Mishkan, this is an important lesson for us to take to heart as we participate in, and build our own community.

I would like to apply this in a different context as well. The question that I was asked a couple of weeks ago was for guidance in helping someone to prepare their will and advanced healthcare directive. One of the lessons of the atzei shitim is that it shows how Ya’akov avinu was able to achieve peace of mind when confronting his own mortality. He took steps to ensure that the values and decisions that mattered most to him would be carried out by his descendants. We have an imperative to do the same in our day and age. Not just by giving tzedakah or by instilling a love of Judaism and the Jewish people in our children and grandchildren. We have a moral and halachic responsibility to ensure that our values and decisions are clear when it comes to our personal lives and well-being. One way that we can do this is to by preparing advanced healthcare directives and ensuring that our preferences are clear to those who will be entrusted with our care if God forbid anything should happen to us. I opened with the story of “meeting” Rajon Rondo at my son’s daycare.  No one knew what to do when encountering a celebrity in such an unexpected setting.   Everyone was too busy trying to get into his head to know what he wanted from us in that situation, that we all wound up looking like fools. There are bound to be lots of similar situations in life when we have to guess what it is that someone else wants from us. Too often it is the case that family members are forced into this situation around the end of life of a loved one. It does not have to be this way. Having the proper papers in place can provide clarity for our family and peace of mind for ourselves.

There are many details and nuances to be addressed when preparing documents of this nature, and now is not the time to get into those details. But now is the time to begin thinking about these issues if you have not done so, to have a conversation with family and loved ones, to make sure that everything is up to date. There are a number of templates available that account for the unique halachic concerns that arise. I am happy to provide resources after Shabbos and would love to work on putting together a more formal at our shul to discuss these issues as a community.

Just as the Halachic prenup has become normative in our community, we must ensure that health care directives become normative as well.


On Yitro and Messaging

It’s been a while since I’ve referenced a movie, and thought it does not relate directly to the rest of my speech, as I was sitting somewhere in day 3 or 4 or was it 5 of the unexpected second winter break that we gifted with this week, I was reminded of a great line from one of the finer films ever made – Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison.

Here’s a brief summary for those who might not be familiar with the film: Adam Sandler’s character Billy Madison is the disappointing heir of his father’s Fortune 500 hotel empire. In order to prove that he is worthy of taking over the company, Billy must successfully complete all 12 grades in 2 week intervals – his father admitted to paying off some of his teachers Billy’s first time through. If not the company will be given to Eric Gordon, one of his father’s conniving associates. Through a series of fascinating plot twists, the fate of the company boils down to an academic decathlon between Billy and Eric. They must show expertise in 10 areas that would be covered in a typical k-12 education. After giving one pathetic answer, the principal and judge turns to Billy and says one of the greatest lines in film history:

Principal: “Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

Let us elevate the conversation and celebrate the fact that Baltimore has finally figured out how to “get back on the grid” after last week’s snow.

The parsha opens with Yitro coming to visit with his son-in-law Moshe:

שמות פרק יח

  • וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ כִּי הוֹצִיא יְקֹוָק אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם:


Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt.

Like any good father-in-law, once he is there Yitro cannot keep quiet. He criticizes Moshe’s style of leadership and helps to establish a new and more efficient court system.

The Gemara, Zevachim 116a asks:

מה שמועה שמע ובא ונתגייר?

What news did he hear that he came and turned a proselyte?

The Gemara offers several opinions:

  • ר’ יהושע אומר: מלחמת עמלק שמע Rabbi Yehoshua says he heard of the war against Amalek.
  • ר”א המדעי אומר: מתן תורה שמע ובא Rabbi Eliezer haMadai says he heard of the giving of the Torah, the Revelation at Sinai
  • ר”א אומר: קריעת ים סוף שמע ובא R Eliezer says he heard of the splitting of the Sea.

Add to this two more possibilities raised by the Midrash Chadash

  • אמר ר’ שמעון, שמע כי המן יורד מן השמים והשליו וכל תאותם ובא ונתגייר. Shimon says he heard of the manna and the quail
  • אמר ר’ יוסי שמע כי ענני הכבוד עליהם מגינם מחום היום ומקרח הלילה ובא ונתגייר. Yossi says he heard of the clouds of glory.

Commentators are also troubled by the timing of Yitro’s arrival. Despite the many possibilities suggested as to what prompted Yitro’s coming, many are of the opinion that Yitro came AFTER the giving of the Torah. Why then does the Torah interrupt its narrative to tell us about Yitro?

Regardless of which specific event prompted Yitro to come, or when he came, the comment of the Sforno is significant:

ולכן נשאו לבו ללכת בעצמו אל המדבר, ולא שלח על ידי שליח למשה את אשתו ואת בניו,

He was moved to go himself to the wilderness and he did not send Moses’ wife and children to him through an emissary

Yitro knew that there was something going on with B’nei Yisrael. Something awesome. And it was not enough to hear about it second-hand. He had to experience it for himself. Yitro felt a personal need to come and experience for himself.

Rav Lichtenstein z”l says that this is the reason why the Torah inserts the story of Yitro here, right before the giving of the Torah.

The Torah was given to the entire Jewish people, as one entity. We read

וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃

And there Israel encamped before the mount. (Exodus 19:2)

Rashi famously writes on this:

ויחן שם ישראל — כאיש אחד בלב אחד,

“Israel camped there” – Like one person with one heart.

While we celebrate the mass revelation at Sinai, there is also a danger. It is very easy to get swept up in the excitement of the group without internalizing any of it on an individual/personal level. One simply goes with the crowd. At the same time, a person may dismiss the mass experience as not being relevant to him or herself – it wasn’t directed toward me.

Yitro counters this danger. As Rav Lichtenstein explains:

“It was necessary for Yitro to appear, of his own initiative without any mountain being held over him, to accept the Torah of his own free will. He had no obligation, nor anyone urging him to act. Nevertheless, he bursts the bounds of his present state and come to receive the Torah.” Yitro further shows the Jewish people that the Torah was given to the nation, but also to every individual.

In fact, this message is seen in the structure of the Torah itself. Perek 19, which describes the preparations for מעמד הר סיני is formulated in the plural:

Exodus 19:4-6:

אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי׃

Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles ‘wings, and brought you unto Myself. (19:4)

וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ

And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. (19:6)

But the עשרת הדברות (Ten Commandments) given in chapter 20 are in the singular form. The Ramban explains:

כל הדברות כלן בלשון יחיד, ה’ אלהיך אשר הוצאתיך, ולא כאשר התחיל להם>אתם ראית וגו אם שמע תשמעו (לעיל יט ד ה), להזהיר כי כל יחיד מהם יענש על המצות, כי עם כל אחד ידבר, ולכל אחד יצוה שלא יחשבו כי אחר הרוב ילך והיחיד ינצל עמהם ויבאר להם משה זאת הכוונה בסוף התורה בפרשת אתם נצבים (דברים כט יז):

The Ten Commandments were uttered in the singular…for God was speaking to each individual so that they would not think that He would focus on the majority, such that the individual would be saved along with them…

I believe that this message – of finding personal relevance and meaning while also celebrating the communal, mass experience explains an interesting thought I had about the 10 commandments. This morning, as we read of the mitzvah of Shabbat in Sefer Shemot, the Torah says:

זָכ֛וֹר֩ אֶת־י֥֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖֜ת לְקַדְּשֽׁ֗וֹ

Zachor – Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. (Exodus 20:8)

Yet in Sefer Devarim when Moshe recaps the story he says:

שָׁמ֣֛וֹר אֶת־י֥וֹם֩ הַשַׁבָּ֖֨ת לְקַדְּשׁ֑֜וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוְּךָ֖֣ ׀ יְהוָ֥֣ה אֱלֹהֶֽ֗יךָ

Shamor – Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD thy God commanded thee. (Deut. 5)

Chazal tell us that זכור relates to the positive commandments of Shabbos while שמור refers to the negative commandments. And despite the fact that the Gemara tells us שמור וזכור בדבור אחד נאמרו , Shamor and zachor were said in one utterance, it is interesting that when Hashem tells us about Shabbos the emphasis is on the positive. On all the aspects of Shabbat that would make someone WANT to keep Shabbat. In the same way that Yitro had to come and experience for himself the wondrous things happening to the Jewish people in the desert.

When Moshe conveys the message of Shabbos he focuses on the negative – all the things we can’t do. This is not an approach that makes a person WANT to keep Shabbos. It is not an attitude that leads to a love for Shabbos and Yidishkeit.

I believe that all too often we fall into this same trap. We experience the beauty of Shabbos and we couldn’t imagine life without it. Yet in describing Shabbos to others, and in talking with our children about Shabbos we become like Moshe. The conversation becomes about all the things we CAN’T do. We get caught up in the communal norms of Shabbos observance and lose site of the wonderful gift that is Shabbos. I’m sure that we have heard of the “half-Shabbos” phenomenon of teenagers going through the motions of keeping Shabbos until they retreat to their rooms and text with their friends.

In our conversations of Shabbos and all other aspects of Judaism and Jewish practice we must be more Godly – by emphasizing the positive elements that make a person WANT to keep these mitzvoth and not get caught up in all the things we can’t do. We need conversations in the mode of zachor in order to ensure that we and our children keep both shamor and zachor.

The Value of Inclusion

The other week my children decided to have a dance party before going to bed. We found videos on YouTube of their favorite pop songs and they had a blast dancing and singing along. As I stood there watching, I had no clue what they were singing and I had never heard of any of these songs. And I realized that I had no interest in any of them. In the cyclical course of history, I knew at that moment that I had become my father.

Twice in our parsha we are warned against oppressing the stranger. And each time the Torah gives a historical reference point to explain why this prohibition is so severe:

Exodus 22:20:

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם

And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

On the surface, the explanation in the two verses appears to be one and the same. But a more careful reading reveals that this is not so. The first verse emphasizes the historical fact that we were once strangers while the second verse emphasizes our capacity to empathize with the stranger because of our experience.

Rashi elaborates on these differences. On the first pasuk he writes:

כי גרים הייתם – אם הוניתו אף הוא יכול להונותך ולומר לך אף אתה מגרים באת מום שבך אל תאמר לחברך.

If you wrong him, he can wrong you back and say to you: You also come from strangers. If you have a blemish do not point it out in your friend. Or, in modern day parlance, the pot should not call the kettle black.

On the second pasuk Rashi comments:

את נפש הגר – כמה קשה לו כשלוחצים אותו

How painful it is for him when others oppress him.

On this pasuk Rashi calls on our moral sensibilities and collective memory. Just as we are commanded to experience and relive the Exodus from Egypt every year at Pesach, we are supposed to internalize the emotions that were felt by our ancestors and inculcated in us – sensitivity to the stranger, to the vulnerable.

While this is surely the loftier goal, Rashi realizes that not everyone has such a capacity for empathy. It is for this reason that the Torah also provides a more selfish – if less admirable – justification for not oppressing the stranger. It’s in your own best interest because you have just as many faults.

Nechama Leibowitz asks why this explanation is necessary. Shouldn’t the Torah focus on the positive, lofty goal of truly feeling for and empathizing with the other?

She gives a powerful answer:

“A history of alienation and slavery, the memory of your own humiliation is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you have gained independence and left it all behind you…
The fact that “you were strangers in the land of Egypt” is certainly no adequate motivation for not oppressing or vexing the stranger. On the contrary, how often do we find that the slave or exile, who gains power and freedom, or anyone who harbors the memory of suffering to himself or his forbears, finds compensation for his former sufferings by giving free rein to his tyrannical instincts, when he has the opportunity to lord it over others? (Studies in Exodus. Mishpatim 3. “Oppress Not the Stranger,” 384).

With this in mind, it is worth noting that immediately following the first warning against oppressing the stranger in our parsha the Torah warns against mistreating other vulnerable members of society:

Exodus 22:21 שמות כב:כא

כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן׃

Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child

The Mechilta records a debate over the scope of this pasuk:

Mekhilta 22:21:1:

כל אלמנה ויתום לא תענון אין לי אלא אלמנה ויתום. שאר כל אדם מנין – תלמוד לומר לא תענון דברי רבי ישמעאל. רבי עקיבא אומר, אלמנה ויתום שדרכן לענות, בהן דבר הכתוב

(Exodus 22:21) “Every widow and orphan you shall not afflict”: This tells me only of widow and orphan. Whence do I derive (the same for) all men? It is, therefore, written “lo ta’anun”, (the additional “nun” implying an extension of plurality). These are the words of R. Yishmael. R. Akiva says: Widow and orphan are more vulnerable to affliction. Scripture speaks of the common instance.

The conventional understanding is that R. Akiva takes the Torah literally and understands the prohibition to be specifically against mistreating the orphan and the widow.

That is not to say that it is acceptable to mistreat others, but this specific mitzvah applies only to them.

This is how the Rambam understands it:

רמב”ם הל’ דעות ו:י

(י) חַיָּב אָדָם לְהִזָּהֵר בִּיתוֹמִים וְאַלְמָנוֹת מִפְּנֵי שֶׁנַּפְשָׁן שְׁפָלָה לִמְאֹד וְרוּחָם נְמוּכָה אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהֵן בַּעֲלֵי מָמוֹן. אֲפִלּוּ אַלְמָנָתוֹ שֶׁל מֶלֶךְ וִיתוֹמָיו מֻזְהָרִים אָנוּ עֲלֵיהֶן שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות כב-כא) “כָּל אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם לֹא תְעַנּוּן”. …

An individual must be careful concerning orphans and widows since their feelings are exceedingly lowly and their spirits are cast down. Even though they may be wealthy and we are commanded concerning even the widow of a king and his orphans, as it says, “You shall not oppress ANY orphan or widow.”

Rabbi Yishmael, on the other hand, understands the Torah’s prohibition as apply to all people. The Torah specifies the widow and orphan because, as Rashi explains, דיבר הכתוב בהווה לפי שהם תשושי כח ודבר מצוי לענותם – the Torah speaks in contemporary terms since they are weak and it is commonplace to oppress them.

I think that is an inaccurate understanding of the debate. Rabbi Yishmael indeed feels that the prohibition applies to all individuals. It is wrong to mistreat any person, two common examples being widows and orphans.

But Rabbi Akiva does not truly limit it to widows and orphans. For Rabbi Akiva the prohibition applies to anyone who is דרכן לענות – vulnerable to affliction or regularly afflicted. Or in the words of Rambam anyone who fits the description of שֶׁנַּפְשָׁן שְׁפָלָה לִמְאֹד וְרוּחָם נְמוּכָה.

Rabbi Akiva maintains that the prohibition applies to any group of people who is vulnerable and susceptible to mistreatment.

This understanding has particular relevance on this, the first Shabbos of February. February has been designated as North American Inclusion Month by Yachad. It is a chance for our community to affirm our commitment to inclusion of those who are physically and/or developmentally disabled. We recognize that as a group these people may be vulnerable and susceptible to oppression. Not only do we stand up against mistreatment of the disabled but we actively seek to include them in our community because we recognize that we have much to learn from them and they have much to contribute to the community. Our community is richer when all groups of people are valued and included.

Over the course of this month we will explore themes of inclusion and reaffirm our commitment to this important value.

Shabbat Shalom.


O The Humanity – Moshe’s Prayers for Pharaoh

As many of you know, my family and I spent winter break with my father and sister at Disney World. It was an amazing trip and we had so much fun. While there, waiting on one of the many lines that we stood on to meet a character or go on a ride it occurred to me how a Disney vacation truly is an escape from reality. Forget about the wars being fought in the world, problems of poverty or inequality. All that mattered was which Disney princess were we going to meet next, and how long is the ride for the nearest roller coaster. This was literally all I thought about for an entire week.

Real life, of course, is much more complicated. This week’s parsha highlights one of those complicated, real life issues that is way too complex for the simplistic, happy Disney world experience.

As the drama of the makot (ten plagues) unfold and we read of the first seven this week, there are three times when Pharaoh calls Moshe and Aaron and begs them to make the plague stop. It is too much for Pharaoh to bear and he asks Moshe to Hashem pray on his behalf in order to stop his suffering.

The first time this occurs is after מכת צפרדע, the plague of frogs.

וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֜ה לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַעְתִּ֣ירוּ אֶל־ה’ וְיָסֵר֙ הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֔ים מִמֶּ֖נִּי וּמֵֽעַמִּ֑י וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְיִזְבְּח֖וּ לה’

Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron, and said: ‘Entreat the LORD, that He take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go, that they may sacrifice unto the LORD.’ (Shemot 8:4)

Pharaoh makes a similar request during the plague of ערוב (wild beasts). He is on the brink of agreeing to allow B’nei Yisrael to go to worship Hashem for three days and says to Moshe:

וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אָנֹכִי אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וּזְבַחְתֶּם לַה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר רַק הַרְחֵק לֹא תַרְחִיקוּ לָלֶכֶת הַעְתִּירוּ בַּעֲדִי.

And Pharaoh said: ‘I will let you go, that ye may sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only ye shall not go very far away; entreat for me. (Shemot 8:24)

Finally, at the end of the parsha during ברד (hail):

וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח פַּרְעֹ֗ה וַיִּקְרָא֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם חָטָ֣אתִי הַפָּ֑עַם ה’ הַצַּדִּ֔יק וַאֲנִ֥י וְעַמִּ֖י הָרְשָׁעִֽים׃ הַעְתִּ֙ירוּ֙ אֶל־יהק וְרַ֕ב מִֽהְיֹ֛ת קֹלֹ֥ת אֱלֹהִ֖ים וּבָרָ֑ד וַאֲשַׁלְּחָ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תֹסִפ֖וּן לַעֲמֹֽד׃

And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them: ‘I have sinned this time; the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. Entreat the LORD, and let there be enough of these mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer.’ (Exodus 9:27-28)

The commentators tell us that Moshe’s prayers on behalf of Pharaoh were sincere, and difficult for Moshe to utter.

On his prayer during tzfardeah, the Torah records: וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה’ עַל דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים אֲשֶׁר שָׂם לְפַרְעֹה. – he cried unto the Lord concerning the frogs He had wrought on Pharaoh (Shemot 8:8). The Da’at Mikra contemporary commentary explains that the verb צעק cry out/scream implies that Moshe cried out loudly as if he were crying   in distress and despair.

ויצעק משמע שמלל בקול גדול כצועק מתוך צרה ומצוקה.

Concerning the prayer offered during Arov, Rashi writes:

ויעתר אל ה’ – נתאמץ בתפילה וכן אם בא לומ’ ויעתיר היה יכול לומ’ ומשמע וְיַרְבה תפילה, וכשהו’ אומ’ בלשון ויפעל משמ’ וַיִרְבֵה להתפלל.

and entreated the Lord: he exerted himself in prayer. Similarly, if [Scripture] meant to say וַיַעְתִּיר, it could have said it, and that would mean that he increased [words] in prayer. Now, however, because it uses the וַיִפְעַל form, it means that he exerted himself to pray [devoutly].

Moshe exerted great effort in praying for Pharaoh.

And finally, at the end of our parsha during barad, Rabbi David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa in Israel writes in his book on the parsha Yoducha Ra’ayonai:

משה נכון היה לשאת תפלה בעד האויב המשעבד את עמו. על אף המציאות הסבוכה מצליח משה להפלל מעומק לבו ולעורר את רחמי הקל על סבלות העם המצרי.

Moshe was correct to offer prayer on behalf of the enemy who was subjugating [Moshe’s] people. Despite the complicated reality, Moshe succeeds to pray from the depths of his heart and to arouse God’s compassion over the suffering of the Egyptian nation.

Why does Moshe go to such lengths to pray for Pharaoh and the Egyptian people? Surely Moshe’s behavior goes beyond what we would expect.

To answer this I’d like to return to an episode from Sefer Breishit. On Rosh Hashanah we spoke about the plight of Yishmael and his mother Hagar ( Hagar is kicked out of Avraham and Sarah’s house twice. Once on her own and once with her son Yishmael. On the second occasion, both mother and child are on the brink of death with no food or water to be found. Hagar abandons Yishmael, too pained to see her son suffer. This story of the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael immediately precedes the story of Avraham and Yitzchak ascending Har haMoriah for Akedat Yitzchak.

In his latest book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence Rabbi Jonathan Sacks contrasts these two episodes:

“We identify with Hagar and Ishmael; we are awed by Abraham and Isaac. The latter is a religious drama, the former a human one, and its very humanity gives it power.” (115)

Despite the fact that Yitzchak is the favored son and chosen successor of Avraham, we more easily identify with Yishmael. The Torah deliberately does not vilify him, and wants us to empathize with him. Rabbi Sacks continues:

In situations of stress, sympathy for the other side can come to seem like a kind of betrayal. It is this that the Ishmael story is challenging. At the first critical juncture for the covenantal family – the birth of its first children – we feel for Sarah and Isaac. She is the he first Jewish mother, and he the first Jewish child. But we also feel for Hagar and Ishmael. We enter their world, see through their eyes, empathize with their emotions. That is how the narrative is written, to enlist our sympathy. We weep with them, feeling their outcast state. As does God. (117-118)

One of the Torah’s fundamental lessons is to empathize and identify with the other, even with our enemy. To bring this back to our parsha, when Pharaoh finally agrees to let the Jews go, Hashem insists that the Jews not leave empty-handed. They should leave ברכוש גדול – with great wealth. The simplest explanation is that the Jews are instructed to demand payment for the hundreds of years of servitude. But not all agree that the רכוש גדול refers to material wealth, or only material wealth.

Rav Yehuda Amital a”h quotes the Ari z”l who explains that God wanted the Jewish people to take with them the positive aspects of Egyptian culture and to integrate them, to “raise the sparks.” ( Despite the oppression to which the Egyptians subjected us, there were still positive elements of Egyptian culture and society. On our own, we would not have taken anything from Egypt. It would have been a terrible nightmare that we wished to put far behind us. To erase all memories. Therefore, God pleaded with Moshe to make sure that the people would take the good aspects of Egypt with them.

Along similar lines, in explaining Hashem’s command to take riches from the Egyptians, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points to a Halacha recorded in Sefer Devarim: When a Jewish slave is set free, his master is obligated to provide him with wealth on his departure (Devarim 15:12-15). Rabbi Sacks explains that this gift is not meant to be compensation for the years spent in slavery. Rather, the gift is meant to provide closure of this chapter in the slave’s life and allow for the parting to be in good will. The slave does not leave his master bearing bad feelings or with feelings of humiliation. Rather, the gifts are symbolic of a new beginning. This is the same idea behind Hashem’s insistence that B’nei Yisrael take money and riches from the Egyptians. If we did not take a symbolic parting gift we would bear resentment and ill-will toward the Egyptians for the rest of our national history. We would be a people stuck in the past. We must let go of whatever animosity we have in order to realize our national destiny. (

This idea of empathizing with the enemy is at the forefront of a contentious debate in Israel. During the latest streak of terrorism and stabbing attacks, one question that has emerged and that is truly dividing Israeli society is how to treat with the terrorists and perpetrators of these attacks once the immediate threat has been stopped.

The Israeli Medical Association, and the medical community has adopted guidelines that once the terrorist is no longer a threat, that all people on the scene – whether they are Israeli, Palestinian, Jew or non-Jew, terrorist or victim – should be treated in order of severity. Those who are most critically wounded should be treated first. ZAKA, the volunteer emergency service organization has refused to accept these guidelines. Yehoshua Meshi-Zahav, the founder and chairman of ZAKA has stated that ZAKA volunteers will treat Jewish victims first.

“In spite of the ethical code that says one should treat the most severely injured first, one should know that even morality has its boundaries,” Meshi-Zahav added. “If we do not make this distinction, we lose our direction. Even in Jewish law it says, ‘He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.’” ( (For a different perspective on this question, see the article written by my friend Rabbi Seth Winberg

I certainly understand this position and relate with Meshi-Zahav’s sentiments. I do not know what the right answer is in this situation.

What is clear, is that Judaism demands of us that we follow in the tradition of Moshe who prayed on behalf of Pharaoh. That despite the harshness of our enslavement in Egypt, we must be able to see the positives of that oppressive society and leave open the possibility of reconciliation. We must be able to see the humanity and to empathize with human suffering, even that of our enemies.

On Being a Good Follower

I’d like to offer a new answer – at least it’s new for me – to an old question:

Why did Yitzchak love Esav so much and want to give Esav the bracha. We know that Esav is the “bad guy.” So what did Yitzchak see that the rest of us didn’t?

One common answer to this question is that in Esav, Yitzchak saw many of the traits that Yitzchak himself was lacking. Yitzchak, as we discussed last week, was traumatized by the Akeidah. He appears to be timid. Esav is the opposite.

Genesis 25:28:

וַיֶּאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו וְרִבְקָ֖ה אֹהֶ֥בֶת אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃

Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; and Rebekah loved Jacob.

The explanation goes that Yitzchak saw the strength, confidence and aggression of Esav. Even if Yitzchak did see that Esav had many spiritual and religious shortcomings, he nonetheless saw that the potential was within Esav to be a strong leader and continuer of the tradition started by Avraham. Yitzchak favored Esav because Esav was the anti-Yitzchak.

But today I’d like to suggest the opposite. I’d like to suggest that Yitzchak favored Esav because Yitzchak saw himself in Esav. What do I mean?

I think that the fundamental quality of both Yitzchak and Esav is that of a follower.

We know that Yitzchak was a follower. The Midrash haGadol (Breishit 26:1) observes:

בוא וראה שכל מה שאירע לאברהם אירע ליצחק. אברהם גלה ויצחק גלה. אברהם נסתקפו על אשתו ויצחק נסתקפו על אשתו. אברהם קנאו בו פלשתים ויצחק כך. אברהם הוליד לבסוף ויצחק כך. אברהם יצא ממנו צדיק ורשע ויצחק כך. אברהם היה רעב בימיו ויצחק כך, שנאמר: ‘ויהי רעב בארץ’.

Note that all that happened to Avraham, happened [also] to Yitzchak. Avraham had to leave his place, and [likewise] Yitzchak had to leave. The identity of Avraham’s wife was questioned, and likewise the identity of Yitzchak’s wife. The Philistines were jealous of Avraham, and likewise of Yitzchak. Avraham eventually had a son, and Yitzchak also eventually had children. Avraham had a righteous son and a wicked son, and likewise Yitzchak. In Avraham’s time there was a famine, and likewise in the time of Yitzchak, as it is written: ‘There was a famine in the land.'”

Yitzchak is celebrated for his ability to literally follow in the footsteps of Avraham. Everything that Yitzchak does in the parsha, in his life seems to be an exact replication of Avraham.

  • They both had to leave their place of living in Israel because of famine
  • They both tried to pass their wives off as their sister to avoid punishment
  • They both have tense dealings with the פלשתים over wells
  • They both make treaties with Avimelech
  • They both have one son who is righteous and one son who is wicked.

Even the wells that Yitzchak digs in our parsha are the same wells that Avraham had dug previously.

Yitzchak is a great follower of Avraham.

What about Esav?

The Talmud and Midrash offer a fascinating insight into Esav. We know that on the day that Esav agrees to sell his birthright to Yakov, Avraham, their grandfather had just died. This is the reason for the lentil soup that Yakov was preparing. The Talmud tells us (Bava Batra 16b) that as long as Avraham was alive Esav did not sin. But on that same day he committed five egregious sins:

אמר רבי יוחנן, חמש עבירות עבר אותו רשע באותו היום: בא על נערה מאורסה, והרג את הנפש, וכפר בעיקר, וכפר בתחיית המתים, ושט את הבכורה.

R. Johanan said: That wicked [Esau] committed five sins on that day. He dishonored a betrothed maiden, he committed a murder, he denied God, he denied the resurrection of the dead, and he spurned the birthright.

According to this, Esav had the desire to sin for a long time, but he knew that it would crush his grandfather Avraham. So Esav held his desire in check until Avraham was no longer around and then Esav let it all go. Avraham, the first Jewish grandfather succeeded in instilling Jewish guilt in his grandson!

The midrash (Breishit Rabbah 63:11) makes his rebellion more philosophical in nature:

יא ויזד יעקב נזיד, אמר לו מה טיבו של נזיד זה אמר לו שמת אותו זקן אמר באותו הזקן פגעה מדת הדין אמר לו הין, אמר אם כן לא מתן שכר ולא תחיית המתים, ורוח הקדש צווחת (שם /ירמיהו/ כב) אל תבכו למת ואל תנידו לו, זה אברהם, בכו תבכה להולך זה עשו.

Esau asked Jasob: “What is the stew for?” Jacob answered: “That old man [Abraham] has died.” Esau said: “That onld man has been struck down by fate!?” He answered, “Yes.” Easu then said, “If so, there is no reward and no resurrection of the dead.” The Holy Spirit cried out, “’Do not cry for the dead and do not lament for them’ – this refers to Abraham; ‘Weep rather for him who is going’ (Jeremiah 22:10) – this refers to Esau.”

Aviva Zornberg elaborates:

The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. P. 60

For Esav, Abraham has been the test case for meaning in absurdity. If he too is subject to the fatality of death, then Esav abandons all belief in an ultimately intelligible reality.


The common theme in both of these explanations is that Esav’s connection to Judaism was only because of Avraham. Esav went through the motions to appease his grandfather, but not because he felt a personal connection. Esav’s love for his grandfather, Avraham, ran very deep. But his love for Judaism was non-existent; his connection was superficial.

We know that Esav was similarly praised for his display of the mitzvah of kibud av va-em. He was a devoted son and grandson but he did not internalize any of Avraham’s or Yitzchak’s values.

But Yitzchak, blinded or scarred by his own life experiences only saw the positive in his firstborn. He saw the same loyalty and commitment to Avraham that was the hallmark of his own life.

And let’s be clear. Though our community puts a primacy on leadership, there is great value to being an effective follower. Rabbi Linzer writes (

“It is easy to dismiss [the life of a follower] as mundane and meaningless, but in fact, without Yitzchak we would not have survived. Yitzchak took all of Avraham’s creativity, all of Avraham’s innovations and vision, and ensured its continuity…. As a people, we have had a few Avrahams: Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Ari, Rav Soloveitchik, and Rav Kook, to name a few. But had Yitzchaks not followed them…their legacies would have been lost to us.”

So Yitzchak favored Esav because he saw himself in Esav. A loyal follower. But there is a key difference between the two. We have already seen that Esav was a superficial follower. He did not accept or internalize any of Avraham’s values or commitments. Yitzchak was a different type of follower. Rav Amnon Bazak has a fascinating shiur ( where he shows that while it appears that Yitzchak’s actions exactly mirror those of Avraham, there are actually fundamental differences. To give two quick examples:

When Sara is unable to conceive, Avraham seems to accept this fate at face value. Yitzchak, on the other hand, when confronted with the infertility of Rivka enters into heartfelt prayer on behalf of his wife.

When faced with famine, Avraham – who had just arrived in the land of Israel – immediately departs for Egypt.

Genesis 12:10:

וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨רֶד אַבְרָ֤ם מִצְרַ֙יְמָה֙ לָג֣וּר שָׁ֔ם כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד הָרָעָ֖ב בָּאָֽרֶץ׃

And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was sore in the land.

The Ramban is very critical of Avraham:

גם יציאתו מן הארץ שנצטווה עליה בתחילה מפני הרעב עון אשר חטא כי האלהים ברעב יפדנו ממות ועל המעשה הזה נגזר על זרעו הגלות בארץ מצרים ביד פרעה במקום המשפט שמה הרשע והחטא

Also his going out from the land – of which he had been commanded at the beginning – due to famine was a transgression that he committed, because Elohim would have saved him from dying (even) in a famine. And because of this deed it was decreed that his seed would be in exile in Egypt under the hand of Pharaoh.


Yitzchak, when confronted with famine does not go to Egypt but rather to the land of the Plishtim, which is in Israel:

Genesis 26:1:

וַיְהִ֤י רָעָב֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ מִלְּבַד֙ הָרָעָ֣ב הָרִאשׁ֔וֹן אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָיָ֖ה בִּימֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֵּ֧לֶךְ יִצְחָ֛ק אֶל־אֲבִימֶּ֥לֶךְ מֶֽלֶךְ־פְּלִשְׁתִּ֖ים גְּרָֽרָה׃

And there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went unto Abimelech king of the Philistines unto Gerar.

Yitzchak escaped the famine without leaving the promised land.


Our community and our society value leadership to the extreme. While leadership is important, we cannot focus all of our energy on creating and praising leaders. Most of us are followers. We must focus some of our collective efforts on foster good followership. Followership in the model of Yitzchak, where the values of the leader are internalized and applied appropriately to the given circumstance, and not in the shallow, superficial model of Esav.