Vayetsei: Encounter in the Dark

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream…Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place!…”(Bereishit 28:10-11, 16-17).

Fleeing, sore and weary,
stumbling over rocks,
he crashes into darkness.

In this place, mute and still,
he waits in black opacity
for terror to abate.

His jagged breath,
rasping in his throat,
slows and softens to a gentle flow.

He sleeps and dreams
and when he wakes, he finds
that God has been there all along.

Shaken, filled with awe, he prays.


The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that in this parasha, Jacob leaves home and will spend the next 20 years away in his uncle’s house. His journey begins with the setting of the sun, and ends (Bereishit 32:27) with the rising of the sun. In her book, Genesis: the Beginning of Desire, Dr Avivah Zornberg describes this period as Jacob’s “dark night of the soul” in which he confronts the dark forces of both his uncle’s treachery and his own tendency to perpetrate deceit. Dr Zornberg addresses the opening verses of Parashat Vayeitse. She comments on the word “vayifga – he came upon” which she says “suggests a dynamic encounter, a collision, with an object that is travelling toward oneself.” She adds that “Hamakom – the certain place” with which Jacob collided, has traditionally been identified as Mount Moriah, the future site of the holy Temple, where humans attempt to draw near to God. But she points out that “Hamakom” is also a name for God. So we understand that Jacob encounters God here. Dr Zornberg describes a “shock of spiritual recognition” which is intimated in the Midrashic translation of vayifga, which also means to pray. Jacob finds himself in impenetrable darkness described by the Midrash as a wall blocking his passage. Rashi teaches that Jacob then initiated the evening prayer in which a person prays, “May it be Your will, O Lord my God, to bring me out of darkness into light.” The Etz Hayim commentary adds that when the Sages attribute the institution of the evening prayer to Jacob, they might be crediting him as the first person to find God in the darkness. In his book, Covenant and Conversation: Genesis, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks compares the experiences of the three patriarchs which form the basis of daily prayer. Abraham rose early in the morning to seek God – he initiated the spiritual quest (morning prayer). Isaac went out in the field in the afternoon to converse with God (afternoon prayer). Jacob encountered God unexpectedly. This is the experience which catches us unawares, as though we were asleep and, awakening, we realise that God has been there all along but we never realised it. We are left transformed. Rabbi Sacks says, “Such experiences take place literally or metaphorically at night… [when] we are alone, afraid, vulnerable…Suddenly…we know that we are not alone, that God is there and has been all along but that we were too preoccupied by our own concerns to notice him. That is how Jacob found God – not by his own efforts like Abraham; not through continuous dialogue like Isaac; but in the midst of fear and isolation. Jacob, in flight, trips and falls – and finds he has fallen into the waiting arms of God.” In a commentary on Vayeitse, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/va-yetzei/5775/how-full-awe-place, Rabbi Mordechai Schwartz addresses Jacob’s awe when he awakens. He says, “This is Jacob’s first introduction to God. Jacob has always been domestic, while Esau, his twin, was the wild one. Now, alone and vulnerable in the outdoors for the first time, Jacob encounters the Holy directly. It is as an unrestrained individual, free from the bonds of society, that he is able to face the Divine. But the Divine is itself an unrestrained force, full of power and mystery. While Jacob treasures this experience, he is simultaneously afraid, and must feel a longing to return to the safe contentment of domestic life…” Rabbi Schwartz points out how the Holy draws us, even while it frightens us. In a commentary on the Parasha from 2012, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/va-yetzei/5773/breaking-routine-encounter-god, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz quotes Gordon Wenham who notes, “Other biblical stories of travelers overtaken by nightfall tell of them being put up for the night by people living in the area. That Jacob is forced to bed down under the stars may suggest his distance from human habitation, or his estrangement, or simply affirm that providence overruled the traditional custom of finding lodging in someone’s house. (Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis, 221) Rabbi Berkowitz asks, however, whether there might be another perspective on Jacob’s wilderness encampment. He cites the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 68:10, “For the sun had set” — read that God extinguished the sun; that is, God caused the sun to set prematurely, so that God might speak with Jacob in privacy. God’s action may be understood by the parable of the king’s admirer who visited him occasionally. The king would command, “Extinguish the lamps, extinguish the candles and lanterns — for I wish to speak with my friend in secret.” Rabbi Berkowitz suggests that the Midrash is teaching us that “shelter is not provided for the patriarch because God wishes to be the one to protect and communicate with Jacob.” God, he says, has orchestrated this encounter in order to facilitate a meeting with Jacob “that can only unfold under the curtain of secrecy and darkness.” He adds that the Midrash is pointing to “the closeness and intimacy of the relationship between God and Jacob…a sacred place and appointed time are chosen for the revelation that Jacob receives. The setting is the wilderness. Stripped of distraction, here Jacob can now focus on the divine.” Rabbi Berkowitz submits that it is true for us also: we encounter God when we take ourselves out of our routine.

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Toledot: Go out to the field

Now my son, listen carefully as I command you. Go to the flock and bring me two choice kids…(Bereishit: 27:8)
Export your truth
from the tent’s cool haven, where
gentle rays caress your sacred tomes.

Narrow your eyes against the blinding light
tramp the fields, muddy your feet,
leave your mark on the pliant ground.

Strain at the plough with one hand
your book teetering in the other
as you furrow both earth and brow.

Trickle the seeds on the soil you tilled
tend them daily, await the sprouting,
anticipate your hard-earned harvest.

Stand in the field squinting skywards
as the sun withers plants
or the rain flattens crops.

Go to the flock to choose two kids
grasp their warm bodies
and bring them for slaughter.

Get your hands dirty, your skin weathered,
carry your faith tucked under your arm
but go take your place in the field.


Rebekah commands Jacob to go out to the field, to the flock. Rav J.B. Soloveitchik asks: “Why such a stern and serious command?” He answers, “Rebekah can see how Esau is a man of the field, a hunter, the man who ventures out into the world, does things, takes control, while Jacob is sitting in tents. And she worries that Esau will remain the only person out in the field, the only statesman, the diplomat, the speaker, the ruler, and he will dominate the economy, the street, the outside world. And if he is the only person out there, he will also drive Jacob from his tents, from his tents of Torah. Rebekah is afraid that if Jacob will be secluded in Be’er Sheba, isolated in the study-hall of Shem and Eber, then Esau, the man of the field, will also drive him out from there. So she tells Jacob, “Go out to the flock, go out to the field, go out to the street, take your Torah out from the tents into the wide world!””
“And this,” says Rav Soloveitchik, “is the mandate. To hold the plough in one hand and in the other hand – the Gemarah. Of course it’s easier to hold a Gemarah with two hands. But if we have to go out into the public arena, we cannot allow it to remain an impure place, as our enemies would like.
“If Jacob goes out into the field, then the field will also be sanctified. As we read in Isaac’s words, “See! The smell of my son is as the smell of the field which God has blessed.” (Bereishit 27:27).”
“Jacob,” adds Rav Soloveitchik, “is an equal participant in the field, in society, in modern life. And when Jacob goes out to the field, that is a sanctification of the field, he brings holiness into the field.”

This imbalance between Esau and Jacob is also addressed in Midrash Rabba on Parashat Toledot regarding the later verse, “So Jacob drew near to his father Isaac who felt him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.”” (Bereishit 27:22): Rabbi Berachya said, Whenever Jacob lowers his voice, then Esau’s hands dominate. Rashi comments on this Midrash that in the text, the word for “voice – kol” spelled kaf-vav-lamed, (and which is repeated in this phrase) is written the first time incompletely, lacking the vav. So he concludes that the point here is that when Jacob’s voice is incomplete and lacking, then immediately the hands become those of Esau – Esau prevails.

In a blog post on the website Limmud on One Leg, http://limmud.org/publications/limmudononeleg/5775/toledot/ Michael Pollack suggests that what is being revealed in the stories of Jacob in this parasha is “about freeing ourselves of stereotyping…about showing that every human being has depth and subtlety way beyond the surface.”
He compares Esau, the impulsive active outdoor type, with Jacob, the cool, thoughtful, bookish intellectual.
Michael Pollack looks ahead to when Jacob, having fled his home, arrives at Laban’s and has to change to become more like Esau. “He needs to shift a rock which no one else could move. He needs to leave his life of books and tents and agriculture and take up the tough life of a shepherd out with the flocks in rough terrain.” He concludes, “We thought we knew Jacob, but we really never ‘know’ another human being. The greatest of us develop and grow and can emerge unrecognisable. To be human is to change.”

Chayei Sarah: Sarah’s cry

“And Sarah’s life was a hundred and twenty and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life.” (Bereishit 23:1)

Master of the World! You designed Creation
not for chaos but for peace; it was You
Who called to Abraham to banish pagan ways.

You bestowed the blueprint of a life
lived by Your word, establishing
the covenant binding us to You.

You imbued Your people with the attribute
of mercy, condemning the depravity
of claiming children’s blood.

Will there be no limit to the torment
of Your children? I stand before You,
Holy One, and cry to You, “Enough!”


In a beautiful and intricate D’var Torah on Chayei Sarah* from 2011 http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5250 (first published in Eretz Acheret, no. 12, 2002), Reb Mimi Feigelson brings a teaching on the Parasha by the Piaseczna Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira** (1889 – 1943) who was murdered in the Holocaust. Reb Mimi describes the legacy of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira’s “torahs” (the name used for Chasidic Torah commentary based on a verse or verses from the Parasha and which the rabbi would deliver in Yiddish during seuda shlishit – the third meal on Shabbat.
The torah that Reb Mimi brings here was written in 1939, and she sees it as a part of an ongoing dialogue which the Rebbe of Piaseczna is conducting with God, against the background of the increasing suffering of the Jewish people. (At the end of this dialogue, in August 1942, the Rebbe says that silence is the only response to God because the suffering is too terrible.)
In this torah the Rebbe addresses the place of suffering in the world and our response to it. He cites the Rebbe of Rymanov on a Talmudic text about the nature of suffering and the Rymanover Rebbe’s conclusion, “that the sufferings will be diluted, so that one will be capable of tolerating them and they will be diluted with mercy.”
Based on the verse above, the Piaseczna Rebbe delves into what the Torah is telling us about Sarah. The repetition of the phrase concerning Sarah’s life is understood as a sign of her great righteousness (even more than Abraham’s since the phrase “the years of Abraham’s life,” is not repeated). The Rebbe further quotes Rashi who asks why Sarah’s death is reported immediately after the Akeida – the binding of Isaac, and replies, “Our Teacher Moshe, the faithful shepherd, juxtaposed the death of Sarah to the Akeida in order to side with us, and to show what happened from too much suffering, God forbid – that her soul departed. And if that is what happened to Sarah, who was such a righteous woman… and she was nevertheless unable to bear great suffering, how much more so is that true of us.”
The Piaseczna Rebbe continues: “One can also say that even our Matriarch Sarah herself, who took the em>Akeida so to heart that her soul departed, did it for the benefit of Israel, to show God how it is impossible for the Jews to tolerate too much suffering, and even someone who by God’s mercy remains alive even after his sufferings, in any case part of his strength and his intelligence and his spirit have been broken and lost – what difference does it make to me if you kill all of me or only part?”
Reb Mimi says that here in 1939 – the Piaseczna Rebbe is still ready to confront God and, like Sarah, tell God that there is no place for such suffering in the world. She says, “…he wants to stand in the shoes of our Matriarch Sarah and say that there is no justification in the Creator’s world for the Akeida! That there is a place where it is impossible to say: “He did not create it a wasteland, He formed it to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18); in other words, the Holy One blessed be He did not create the world in order for chaos to reign in it, but in order “for it to be inhabited”, so that people will have serenity in their lives. Otherwise, it turns out that God Himself is destroying the world! Our Matriarch Sarah serves as a shofar that warns that there is a limit to the suffering of which a person is capable; our Matriarch Sarah serves as a shofar, whose sounded blasts declare that the rules of the game have been broken! Yes, it is she who says: “They broke the rules and we refuse to play!””
She adds, “Sarah’s role in the world is to insist on justice from the Creator, to demand that there be limits placed on what is required of man. To demand a relationship that confirms mutuality and honesty…The Piaseczna Rebbe is telling us that Sarah gave her life in order to teach the Creator a lesson in running the world.”
Reb Mimi proposes another layer to this torah of the Piaseczna Rebbe: “In the previous paragraph he includes the name of our Teacher Moshe in this torah: “That our Teacher Moshe, the faithful shepherd, placed the death of Sarah right after the Akeida“. You ask yourself, why does the Rebbe feel a need to bring Moshe into the discussion? Is the Rebbe trying to give us a lesson in Biblical criticism?”
Reb Mimi suggests that the Piaseczna Rebbe is showing us two role models: Moses and Sarah, and their very different relationships with God.
She continues, “And one could explain the verse “the years of Sarah’s life”, to mean that Sarah ostensibly sinned against the years that would have remained to her had she not taken the Akeida so to heart. But since she did it for the benefit of the Jewish people, the verse hints “the years of Sarah’s life”, meaning that her years after the 127 were all equally good, because she did not sin with them, either, therefore God will have mercy on us and on all of the Jewish people, and will redeem us swiftly spiritually and physically, through revealed acts of lovingkindness.
“The Midrash already juxtaposed the death of Sarah and the Akeida, and hints that Sarah actually “took her own life”. The Piaseczna Rebbe explains the repetition of “the years of Sarah’s life” with a different reading of the Hebrew words, to mean “the two lives of Sarah”: The life she lived and the life she was supposed to live, had she not “given up her life” in order to teach the Creator a lesson about the laws of suffering! The Piaseczna Rebbe explains Rashi: Sarah’s stance is a stance of disappearance. Sarah is a “tzaddika” in the classical sense of the term as well, the Talmudic “tzaddik” who lives according to the letter of the law. But her observance of the letter of the law, the sphere of “heroism” that she represents, stems from the internalization of mercy, “so that the sufferings will be diluted, so that it will be possible to tolerate them and they will be diluted with mercy”. And if not, she is abandoning the fray.
“If our Matriarch Sarah symbolizes for us “a stance of absence”, our Teacher Moshe symbolizes “a stance of presence”. No matter what happens to him, he doesn’t budge an inch. Moses is the one who, even after the Holy One blessed be He forbids him to enter the Land of Israel, continues to pray and to plead. He is the one who inside the hell of the ghetto gets up every morning and prays three daily prayers. On the contrary, he is the one who says to the Creator: “Not only am I not getting up and leaving, but I will continue to plead, I will continue to do my work faithfully, and You will have to confront me every day and explain to me why. You, my Creator, will have to serve as an eternal witness to my sorrow and my sufferings.””
Reb Mimi adds, “These models serve me as well, in my inner experience. They provide alternatives for the way in which we want to deal with the sufferings – great and small – that we undergo. The Piaseczna Rebbe spreads them out before us and creates a place for both of them. I know that in my own life there are days in which I want Sarah’s strength to get up and leave…I also know that there are days when I feel Moshe breathing down my neck, without letting go, and demanding that I stand in place. Sometimes I stand there out of anger. Sometimes out of a longing for God’s closeness…
“And I still ask myself how the Piaseczna Rebbe saw himself first and foremost, as our Matriarch Sarah or as our Teacher Moshe. And I still ask myself how he lived both of them simultaneously.”

**Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was born in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Poland to his father, the Imrei Elimelech of Grodzhisk. Named after his maternal great-grandfather, the renowned Maor VaShemesh, he was a scion of a distinguished family, which included Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, the Chozeh of Lublin and the Maggid of Kozhnitz.
At the age of three, he was orphaned by the death of his father. In 1905 he married Rachel Chaya Miriam, daughter of his nephew Grand Rabbi Yerachmiel Moshe of Kozhnitz. She helped him prepare his lectures and books, even adding pertinent insights of her own. The couple had two children: a son, Elimelech Ben Zion, and a daughter, Rechil Yehudis, both of whom perished in the Holocaust.
In 1909 he was appointed rabbi of Piaseczna, near Warsaw, and subsequently attracted many chasidim. He was deeply focused on the education of children and young men, establishing the yeshiva Da’as Moshe in 1923, which became one of the largest chasidic yeshivot in Warsaw between the wars.
In his work as a teacher, Rabbi Shapira attempted to reverse the trend toward secularization, which swept the Jewish community in Poland between the wars. The vibrant cultural life of the city, as well as the attractions of political movements such as Zionism eroded the number of students wishing to pursue a yeshiva education. These trends, Rabbi Shapira argued, could only be exacerbated by archaic educational methods, harsh discipline and rote learning, such as were often the practice of the day in yeshivot. According to Rabbi Nehemia Polen (a noted expert on Rabbi Shapira’s work) in his most important work, Chovas haTalmidim (“The Students’ Responsibility”), Rabbi Shapira argued that a child must be imbued “with a vision of his own potential greatness” and be enlisted “as an active participant in his own development.” Likewise, teachers “must learn to speak the language of the student, and graphically convey the delights of a life of closeness to God.” Rabbi Shapira argued for positive, psychologically sensitive, joyous educational methods.
Some similarity had been pointed out between these ideas and the educational ideas set out on a non-religious basis, in much the same years, by Janusz Korczak.
Rabbi Shapira’s only son, his daughter-in-law and his sister-in-law were killed during the Nazi aerial bombing of Warsaw in September, 1939. After the invasion of Poland, Rabbi Shapira was interned with a few of his chasidim in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he ran a secret synagogue. He invested enormous efforts in maintaining Jewish life in the ghetto, including arranging for mikveh immersions and kosher marriages. Rabbi Shapira was able to survive in the ghetto until its liquidation, avoiding the tragic deportations to Treblinka in the summer of 1942, because of the support of the Judenrat. Like other notables, he was given work at Schultz’s shoe factory — a path to ongoing survival.
While most of the “torahs” of the Piaseczna Rebbe were anthologized before the Holocaust, he himself wrote “Esh Kodesh” (Fire of Holiness) which comprises “torahs” which he delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1939 and 1942, relating to the vicissitudes of Jewish life and complex issues of faith in the face of suffering in the ghetto. When it became apparent to Rabbi Shapira that the end of the ghetto and all its inhabitants was near, he buried the book in a canister. This canister was found by a construction worker after the end of the war and was published in Israel in 1960.
After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was crushed in 1943, Rabbi Shapira was taken to the Trawniki work camp near Lublin. Although offered the opportunity to escape from the concentration camp, he apparently refused. Following the Jewish uprising in the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps there was increasing concern among the Nazi authorities that there would be further outbreaks of violence at other concentration camps. For this reason, Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival) was launched. During this operation, carried out on November 3, 1943, all the remaining Jews in Trawniki, including Rabbi Shapira, were shot to death.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira is held as an example of faith under enormous duress. Whereas more traditional portrayals of the Holocaust tend to dwell on the miraculous survival of famous rabbis and on the strength of the faith of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe despite their suffering, the Piaseczna Rebbe does not shy away from describing the deterioration of faith in the ghetto. He also wrestles with the difficulty in continued faith in God’s justice under such circumstances, drawing answers from Kabbalah and other Jewish sources. Notwithstanding these intellectual and emotional struggles, Rabbi Shapira’s faith remained strong and unwavering and he continued to inspire others to the end of his life.
*This poem is based on only one aspect of Reb Mimi Feigelson’s D’var Torah on Chayei Sarah.

Vayeira: Both pockets

And Abraham answered, “…I am but dust and ashes.” (Bereishit 18:27).
I pull the crumpled slip
from one side,
gently smooth the creases:
“I am but dust and ashes,”
the faded writing says,
reminding me
of what awaits
and since that’s so
my offering can be but meagre.

I pull the crumpled slip
from over,
gently smooth the creases:
“For my sake was the world created,”
the faded writing says,
reminding me
Who has with life imbued me
and since that’s so
then I too have a gift
which I alone can offer.


Abraham makes increasingly daring challenges to God, attempting to avert the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. First he asks, “Ha’shofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat? – Shall the Judge of all the world not do justice?” to which God responds that for fifty righteous people, He will spare the cities. Abraham then prefaces his pleading with the words “Anochi afar ve’efer – I am but dust and ashes…”
Abraham’s self-abnegating description is considered by the commentators to connote praiseworthy humility. In a Yom Kippur sermon from 2004, appearing on his website, http://leaches.net/moline/sermon–044.html, Rabbi Jack Moline brings the Midrash which expands this verse, in which Abraham says to God, “Without Your mercy, the five kings I defeated would have turned me into dust, and Nimrod [who tried to burn me in a furnace] would have turned me into ashes.” Rabbi Moline suggests that this is the real meaning of the phrase – Abraham is reminding God that He created him for a purpose. Only by God’s will is Abraham not dust and ashes.

R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa taught on this verse, that one should have two pockets: in one, a note saying, “I am but dust and ashes,” and in the other, a note saying, “Bishvili nivra ha’olam – For my sake was the world created.” R’ Simcha Bunim derives the inscription on the second note from the Mishnah in Sanhedrin 37b: “The Holy-One-Blessed-be-He, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet none of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake.”

Martin Buber develops this notion: ““Every person should know and consider the fact that you, in the particular way that you are made, are unique in the world, and no one like you has ever been. For if someone like you had already been, there would be no reason for you to be in this world. Actually, everyone is something new in this world, and here we must work to perfect our particular being, for, because we are still imperfect, the coming of the Messiah is delayed!” (From Ten Rungs: Collected Hasidic Sayings.)

Rabbi Simcha Bunim adds an important rider. He teaches that one should know how to use the notes – in the right time and place and not, as he cautions many do, in the opposite context.

In a sermon on Kol Nidrei in 2011, http://dorsheitzedek.org/writings/two-pockets, Rabbi Toba Spitzer addresses the need for this balance between the two pockets in the work of teshuvah. She suggests that the “dust and ashes” note is an antidote to feelings of entitlement; a reminder of our minuscule place in the cosmic scheme; and a reminder, too, of our ultimate mortality (and therefore of the gift of life).
She submits that the pocket of “For my sake was the world created,” is a reminder “that we are all created in the image of God. It is a reminder that as bnei Adam, children of the first human, our inheritance is all the blessings of Creation. This world is here for us, too.” She continues, “… We are unique and necessary creations. For our sake the world was created. And not only that — we each have our own particular work to do…Each of us has some work to do in this world, something to repair, that only we can do. To ignore or shirk that task by pleading our own incompetence or unworthiness is a kind of affront to God, to the Source of Creation.”
Rabbi Spitzer concludes, “Most of us, I would imagine, fall somewhere between these two pockets, sometimes knowing that the world was created for my sake, sometimes feeling like dust and ashes. It is good to move back and forth between the two pockets, as Reb Simcha Bunem used to do. And perhaps best of all is to experience both at the same time: the radical humility of “dust and ashes,” and the acceptance and love of self of “the world was created for my sake.”

Rabbi Chaim Ha-Cohen Rapaport was a fierce opponent of Chassidism, which originated in his time. Consequently, there was strong animosity between him and the Baal Shem Tov who founded the movement. Once, according to legend, Rabbi Chaim was sitting alone in his Bet Midrash studying Torah, and another man came in. Rabbi Chaim asked him:”Who are you?” The stranger replied: “I am but dust and ashes,” and in return inquired of R’ Chaim, “and who are you?” Rabbi Chaim responded in kind: “I, too, am but dust and ashes.” The guest retorted: “Why then should there be controversy between mere dust and ashes?” and Rabbi Chaim understood that his guest was the Baal Shem Tov himself!