How can we bear the guilt? (On the first anniversary of Newtown)

This week’s Torah portion includes Jacob’s blessings—first of his grandsons and then of his sons. Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe (Joseph’s children) read as we would expect—summoning God’s blessing on these children and their progeny. However, when Jacob blesses his children, the blessings come out as a review and critique of their lives. Our Rabbis tell us that Jacob had intended to foretell for his progeny “the end of days” (Genesis 49:1) but that his prophetic vision was blocked. Instead he takes account of what his children have wrought.

In blessing his second and third born sons, Shimon and Levi, Jacob must come to account with one of the most disturbing events in Genesis—the slaughter of the Shechemites following the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. In the event, it was Shimon and Levi who orchestrated the well wrought response. They demanded that the Shechemites circumcise themselves on the pretext that then Jacob’s clan would intermarry and trade with them. Once the Schechemites were weakened from the circumcision, the brothers proceeded to slaughter the Shechemite males. (Genesis 34) Jacob in his “blessing” says the following:

Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.

This is the newer Jewish Publication Society Translation. The word which poses a problem is me’chayrotetayhem which is translated here as “tools of lawlessness.” The Old (1917) Jewish Publication Society translation, renders the phrase “Weapons of violence their kinship,” while the King James version has “instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.” This should give one a sense of the difficulty in figuring out what the word me’chayrotetayhem means. Continue reading

Rabbi Rivka the Patriarch

The midrash contextualizes every Torah portion via a device known as an “opening” (petihta).  The opening is a literary-biblical tour de force in which a rabbi cites a verse from a wholly other context and leverages that verse to reveal something insightful and interesting about the Torah portion under discussion. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana opened this past Shabbat’s torah portion (Hayyei Sarah) with the verse “and the sun rises and the sun sets” from Ecclesiastes (1:5). From this the rabbi derives a general principle: God never allows the sun of one tzaddik, one righteous person, to set before making sure that another tzaddik’s sun has risen. The Torah portion of Hayyei Sarah, begins with the death of Sarah. However, at the very end of the previous portion, Rivkah, who was to be the wife of Yitzhak, is born. The rule holds: one righteous person, Sarah, dies; but not until another righteous person, Rivkah takes her place.


I would like to embrace this rule: one sun sets, another rises, but suggest that the setting is not Sarah but Avraham. In this case, Rivka is not coming into the world to be the wife of the second patriarch, but, rather to be the second patriarch. Continue reading