Friday, November 9, 2007


by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

This is the parsha of struggling, of wrestling within the womb. What spirit will emerge and achieve dominance as the symbolic representative of our heart's true nature?

Our name is our essence, the keenest description of our most innate beingness. In Parashat Toldot we experience the birth and the naming of Ya'akov and Esav, the disparate twins of Yitzhak and Rivka. Ya'akov means supplanter, or heel, the ergonomically accessible point by which to pull another back and pass him by in the process, in the same instant. The blessings which accrue to Ya'akov give the Divine imprimatur to the Biblical idea of merit over birth order, of moral primacy over primogeniture.

Yitzhak's rising over Ishmael was arguably won by dint of the power struggles between Sarah/wife andHagar/handmaid-concubine. But with the ascendancy of the younger Ya'akov over the older Esav, there is no question that they shared the same set of parents; all control factors accounted for; everything else being equal. The name Ya'akov in its deepest essence alludes to the ikvei mashiach, the footsteps of the annointed one, the future redeemer. The age of redemption will be characterized by the vainquishing of the stronger by the weaker, of the still small voice of quiet prayer over the gluttonous, raucous, brutish impetuosity of strength and power and might, of hakol kol ya'akov over hayadayim y'dei esav.

Esav means "done," already made, his spiritual growth already seemingly completed by the time he left the womb. The name Esav has the rank odor of fermentation on the brink of spoilage. It symbolizes the weight of the psychological security of amassed comforting false remembrances of the glory of things past asserting domination over the hope, aspirations and promise of the emerging moment of a new day that is dawning.

The twins wrestling within her reflect our own inner demons of confidence and self-doubt, of "I am but dust and ashes" wrestling with "the world was made for my sake." All patriarchal and matriarchal (mis)adventures prefigure our own (ma'asei avot siman le-banim). But confidence emerges triumphant, like Ya'akov over Esav. Generosity of heart and grandiosity of spirit wins out over self-centered stinginess.

Ironically, the heartset (as opposed to mindset) that declares the world was made for my sake, has the confidence to be overflowingly generous. He knows that he can conquer all obstacles, and that scarcity, if experienced at all, is but a fleeting phenomenon. The mindset may be small, but the heartset is extremely big. Does our ego confidence have room for magnaminity and generosity? Our conflicting impulses wrestle within us on so many levels. And yet, in the end the spirit of generosity wins out, as the seal of kindness imprinted on the souls of Abraham's descendants is earned by Rivka, who now earns the mantle of matriarchy.

How is this shown in the text? When the servant says "(Gen 24:17,18) give me, please, a little water to sip from your jug

...hagmieeni na me'at mayim mikadech,"

she doesn't respond parsimoniously, but rather with generosity, superceding the modest request for a sip with a thirst quenching drink. Her response was an aspect of the concept of "lifnim meshurat hadin," of going beyond the letter of the law. Eliezer knew that any worthy matriarch must be a paragon, teaching her future descendants by her own example, that true kindness means following the spirit of generosity even more than the letter.

Finally, Yitzhak himself achieves fulfillment, by earning in the end his own name. Avimelech is gazing out his window (Gen 26:8) "and saw, and lo and behold, Yitzhak was "enjoying himself" with his wife Rivka

....vayar vehiney Yitzhak mitzahek eyt Rivka ishto."

Well, finally Yitzhak himself is living his name, whatever it may mean. Does anyone remember "laughter" in the Torah? In Lech Lecha, (Gen 17:17) Avraham laughs when G*d tells him that he and the newly named Sarah will have a son in their old age. Further on, in Vayera, Sarah now laughs (Gen 18:12) when she overhears (first of the eavesdropping matriarchy) the angel/man saying,"your wife Sarah will have a son." Later, in the same parasha, Sarah sees the son of Hagar "mitzachek-ing" with Yitzhak, which some holy commentaries say possibly alludes to sex-play or scornful mockery. Contextually, why was Ishmael's behavior seen as unworthy by the text in light of Sarah's insistence that Hagar and her son be expelled on account of it, whereas it is seen as valorized and worthy when performed by Avraham, Sarah, and now, by Yitzhak himself?

That is because laughter itself is holy. In all three of the latter cases, the laughter took place in the presence of the holy. Avraham's laughter took place in the presence of G*d, Sarah's likewise was in the presence of the emissaries of the Divine. Finally Yitzhak's holy laughter took place in the presence of Avimelekh's glimpse into a Divinely granted vision of the future. How's that?

It says, "Vayehi ki archu lo sham hayamim.... "

Customarily translated as "when he had been there a long time."

It could also be read as"when "they" made his days long," alluding to a Divinely granted vision of the eschaton, the end of history, when all will be in a constant state of Shabbat, a yom she kulo Shabbat, a "day" which is entirely like Shabbat. And "archu" is prefigurative of the psalmist's "orech yamim asbiayhu va'arayhu beyeshuati... (Tehillim 91)

With long life I will satisfy him, and I will show him my salvation." i.e. : he will witness the salvation I will bring about at the advent of the Messiah, at the time of the revival of the dead, and at the salvation of The World to Come (Radak)). The three angels gazed (vayishkefu) at Sodom (Gen:18:16), immediately prior to G*d's revelation of His plans for the city to Avraham.

There, "hashkafa" immediately precedes revelation. Here, similarly, the "hashkafa" of Avimelekh precedes the ultimate Revelation of the end of days. Divine laughter, holy laughter, is the celebration of all life on earth, that everything occurs according to G*d's plan, following the teleological timeline to cosmogonic bliss.

Hagar's son's laughter was mocking laughter, not the laughter of the Divine Presence. He had crossed that fine line and Sarah's holy intuition perceived it. He is called here "ben-Hagar" purposely on account that he had learned the art of mockery from his own mother, who had herself scorned and mocked Sarai when she had conceived while Sarai had not!

This is not to imply that Ishmael was somehow "lower" than Isaac. After all, he was blessed with twelve progeny as was Jacob/Israel. Rather that he had unmoored the act of laughter from its Divine connotations and thereby exposed its nakedness, now denuded of its holiness. For laughter indeed is an apt response to the awareness of the Divine, when all controlled linguistic response somehow feels inadequate.

And symbolically, Yitzchak is the one whose name bears the seal of laughter. And for Ishmael to engage in "Tzichuk" with Yitzchak is in a way to be appearing to "supplant" the Tzichuk essence of Yitzchak. Only Yaakov may act as the supplanter (EKeV)! Two bearers of laughter wrestle for dominance. Holy laughter wrestled with scornful, mocking laughter. Ishmael's supplanting of Yitzchak's laughter with his own brand only sows confusion and symbolically does violence to Yitzchak's essence, and by extension to laughter's holy essence as a response to the awesomeness of the Divine.

At the end of time Yitzhak will (be) Mitzachek, i.e., we will be in a state of holy bliss brought by the awareness of being in the Presence of the Divine. Yaakov, his son, needed to emerge as the supplanter, his name's essential meaning. Only with his son's assistance would HIS vision of holy laughter ultimately supplant the mocking laughter of the scorner, the holy laughter of the idealist over that of the scorner, and the righteous promoter of Tikkun Olam over the cynical defender of the status quo.

On Shabbat we glimpse a vision of the Yom SheKulo Shabbat, of the bliss which awaits the righteous at the end of days. May we all, like Yitzchak, live our true essence, becoming the persons we were destined to be, and in our own worthy way, help bring about the vision of Avimelekh and taste the salvation of that long day, when the great light shall shine forth from Zion, and when all darkness shall be banished.

Shabbat Shalom. Good Shabbos.

© 2000 - 2007 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in honor of the memory of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Yaakov Hakohen Melman, z"l

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua

(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)

Dedications are available.
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When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.- Abraham Joshua Heschel
The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is to not be afraid.
-Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
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"As you want G*d to give you a chance, give everyone else a chance to also begin again." - Shlomo Carlebach

About Me

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I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!