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January Bulletin REF2

A FEW MINUTES WITH THE TORAH

Spotlighting the outstanding d’vrei Torah written and delivered by congregants.  Melissa Putterman Hoffmann shared some thoughts with us at the Nov. 17 Kabbalat Shabbat service.

Tol’dot, by Melissa Putterman Hoffmann

This week’s parshah is Tol’dot, Hebrew for generations or descendants.  Despite its dry title, this is one of the great stories in Genesis.  And if you ask me, it’s about COMPETITION.

Sarah has passed.  Abraham has passed.  We might expect this week’s portion to turn its focus to Isaac (you remember – the son who trudged all the way up the mountain with his father, without knowing he was the planned sacrifice), but instead we  move to Isaac’s children, with Isaac becoming the link between Abrahm and Jacob.  There are twins who could not be more different, and parent preferences: the father for hairy Esau, the huntsman, the mother for Jacob, momma’s helper in the kitchen.  There are continuing instances of deception and karma(!).  For example, previously seen in Genesis, Abraham passes his wife off as his sister in order to protect himself – a ruse that allows other men to treat her as a conquest; this week, Abraham’s son, Jacob, joins his mother in a scheme to cheat his brother, Esau, out of a birthright;  later, Jacob will be duped into marrying the wrong sister.  And in old age, Jacob will be fooled by his sons into thinking that his favorite son, Joseph, is dead.

Good times.

There is also a prophetic explanation for the tumult inside Rebekkah’s womb when she is pregnant.  Two children who will someday become two nations are pressing against each other inside her womb and will remain in perpetual competition until one prevails over the other.

Competition and the strategies for coming out ahead don’t often bring out admirable behavior in the Torah.  Tonight I’d like to summarize and comment on an essay by Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel entitled “Competition in Jewish Thought.” The essay appears in the book, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values.

Even before people were created, the Torah already alludes to competition: on the Fourth Day of Creation … there was competition between the sun and the moon for dominance of the world.  They contended about which would provide more light for the earth.  Since there cannot be two equal rulers and “winners” in this competition, Rashi says that the moon was made smaller and “moved” to the night. G-d even “compensated” the moon for this and gave it the stars.  The moon did not want to obey G-d and become smaller, claiming that “it is not fair.”  G-d admitted to the moon that its claim was legitimate and, as “compensation” for its diminishment (and losing the “competition”), declared that a special sacrifice would be brought at the beginning of each lunar month (Rosh Chodesh) to honor/placate the moon for its reduction in size.

So we see different responses to competition: giving voice to feelings of unfairness, acknowledging those feelings, compensation through gifts (stars) and honoring the loser in perpetuity (sacrifice).

Back to the essay: The role of the Serpent in the Garden, competing with G-d’s directive and convincing Eve to choose the apple; Cain and Abel with a rivalry so intense that one killed the other in order to garner the most affection and approval from G-d; the competition between the tribes in Israel, which forced Moses to conduct a lottery so that the competition would be minimized and the appointment of judges would seem equitable to all.

Again, we see additional outcomes or responses to competition:  punishment, banishment (for eating the apple), murder to get what one wants, a lottery that leaves the winner to chance rather than leaving a leader to decide who wins.

The essay has this to say about the competition over birthright and blessing in this week’s portion: in Isaac blessing Jacob when he may have actually discerned that it was Jacob he was blessing rather than his older brother, Esau, a very interesting truth emerges.  In each story in the Torah, Judaism is clearly teaching us that blood lines and predetermination do not decide the winner of the competition in advance.  The competition is always fair (hopefully) and the more deserving competitor is victorious.

Amsel leaves us with questions (what d’var Torah doesn’t?).  Are Jews supposed to quash all of their natural feelings to compete, or are they supposed to channel these feelings to something more positive?  Is it possible to compete and still have feelings of compassion without jealousy toward others?  If people can attain peace with others, should they still feel guilty about desiring to compete?  End of essay summary.

May we in our work and play recognize the times for healthy competition.  May we discover other lenses through which feelings of rivalry can be understood and resolved.  And may we come through losses to competitors or competing circumstances intact, knowing that we remain in possession of our nefesh, neshama and ruah – our soul and spirit – and lev tahor – pure heart.

 

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