‘Hey Jude’ – but not the Beatles way

Thank you can be such a difficult word to say. Benjamin Disraeli is reported to have said: “I feel a very unusual sensation, if it is not indigestion, I think it must be gratitude”. But as a nation, we are actually known as ‘thanks’. The name Jew, from the original Yehudah, means thank you. When he was born, Leah named her fourth son Yehudah saying, “this time I will thank (odeh) Hashem”. For the first 800 plus years of our existence, during the time of the Kings and the first Temple, we were known as Israelites, meaning ‘prince of Hashem’. Then from the story of Purim onwards, during our most bitter exiles until today, we are known as Yehudim, for it is specifically when things go wrong that we need to remember to still say thank you.


Yehudah also means to acknowledge, and in this week’s Sedra of Vayechi, Yaackov tells Yehudah that his brothers will acknowledge him. It makes sense that the other brothers would acknowledge the son whose name means thanks and acknowledgement, but why did Leah wait until her fourth son was born to thank Hashem? Surely the birth of Reuven, Shimon and Levi were also reasons to thank Hashem.


The answer is the reason why thank you may be the hardest word to say: it requires a specific and detailed process. First we have Reuven from the word Reuh, to see. Then comes Shimon from the word Shemah, to listen. Finally comes Levi, from the word Yilaveh, to connect.


When Yaackov blesses Yehudah that his brothers would acknowledge him, he was teaching a lesson that had to last not just for that generation or during the secure and sanctified era of the Kings and the Bet Hamikdash, but also throughout the long and bitter exile.  When things are going well it is easy to say thank you; it costs nothing and we are feeling good anyway. The difficulty is when the chips are down, when we are struggling and along comes a benefactor, a protector, someone who helps us. Their assistance is much more vital, so our thanks means more, it costs more, it reveals our dependency on their beneficence and therefore it is harder to say properly.


Leah with the intuition of a Yiddishe Mama understood this. She was the ‘accidental bride’. Her sister Rachel was the beloved one and Yaackov’s intended wife. Leah knew that she wasn’t meant to be married to Yaackov, never mind bear his children, the future Tribes of Israel. So when her first son was born, she didn’t just spit out a thanks, she stopped to look. She looked to see what she had been blessed with. She made eye contact with her benefactor. Then again with her second blessing, she still did not blurt a thanks, but she stopped to listen. She needed to hear and internalise the magnitude of her bounty. Similarly with blessing number three, she declared a connection with the source of her good fortune.


It was only after seeing, stopping to actually look at her blessing; listening and internalising that blessing and then discovering her connection to it could she truly say thank you and call her fourth son Yehudah.

On his death-bed, shortly before the Egyptian exile was about to begin, Yaackov reinforces that process. He teaches his sons that the reason thank you is the hardest word to say is because it’s not just a word; it is a full journey. Especially when it is said from a position of weakness. We must see and hear the blessings for what they are, develop a connection to our benefactor through the blessing, and then at that point we can truly say thank you. The real challenge is because thank you is such an easy ‘word’ to say, but such a hard emotion to truly convey.

Can Commerce Trump Torah?

Does the Divine Presence dwell more in the House of Torah or House of Commerce? This seems like one of those trick questions, for surely it must favour the House of Torah! Yet the fact that we are asking the question implies that in fact, the opposite is true, and we can prove it from this week’s Sedrah.


A major section of Vayeitzeh details the birth of 11 of Yaackov’s sons and his daughter Dinah. Each time a child is born, its mother decides on a name that reflects their current desire and captures the mood of the moment. For example, when Leah’s first child is born, she calls him Reuven. This is a composite of Re’uh-Ben, meaning ‘see, a son’. Leah was delighted that she had now given birth and hoped that it would elevate her in Yaackov’s eyes after he was tricked into marrying her instead of Rochel. Similarly, when Rochel’s maidservant Bilhah has her first child, Rochel names his Dan, representing judgement. She felt that her previous judgement which had caused her to be barren had been lifted and she now had a new judgement; one that she could celebrate.


By the birth of the tenth child, a sixth one for Leah, she calls him Zevulun. This alludes to the word ‘zevul’, meaning abode or dwelling place. Rashi explains that Leah was now convinced that Yaackov would make her tent his main dwelling place for she had now given birth to six sons, equal to all his other three wives combined.


The problem though is that Zevulun is the polar opposite of Yaackov. Both Yaackov and Moshe bless Zevulun for his entrepreneurial attitude. He made a pact with his brother Yissachar, whereby Zevulun would work and pay Yissachar to learn and in return he would get half the reward of the Torah study. Zevulun, in essence, was the architype of the person who paid someone else to learn for him, whereas Yaackov was the epitome of one who never strayed from the Tent of Torah. How could Leah get it so wrong? How could she think that specifically the son who would work and not prioritise his learning, would be the child who would inextricably tie her to Yaackov who diligently prioritised his learning over work?


Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidus explains that in truth we can only make the Divine Presence a permanent and real part of this physical world when we attempt to attain this consciousness whilst being engaged in the pragmatic lifestyle of Zevulun. If we remain aloof from the mundane world, if we lock ourselves exclusively in the Tent of Torah, then the spiritual strength and resilience of our souls remain untested.


If however we take the Zevulun approach and make the effort to set aside time for the study of Torah, then the true ability inherent in our soul, the power to assert itself even outside the natural environment is revealed. And that is how we create a permanent home, a true dwelling place for the Divine in this world. For it must be pointed out that Zevulun did not excuse himself from learning, he did not buy his freedom, he put his time and effort into learning and becoming a better person. But he knew that he needed more, he knew that he had to infuse the bulk of his day, his working hours, with Torah and Judaism as well. That is why he made his pact with Yissachar.


Our challenge is to emulate Zevulun. To set aside time for learning Torah and improving our Jewish character, but we must also bring that into our workplace. When we work just to earn money then there is no sanctity in it; we are simply in a rat race. If however, we are able to infuse our workplace with sanctity by partnering with those who are able to dedicate more of their time, then not only do we elevate our work, we actually create a true dwelling place for the Divine in this world.

TNT Heal v. Heel Eikev 5777


Heal v. Heel

Eikev 5777

Say TNT and most people will think of explosives; discovered back in 1863, it has been the main component of artillery since the word wars. Now however, TNT stands for something totally different; tissue nano-transfection. This is a process whereby scientists can transmogrify skin cells; change them and adapt them to grow into other cells. It sounds like science fiction and the stuff of Marvel comics, but the scientists write new instructions which are encoded in DNA and loaded on to a chip applied to a patient’s skin. This chip uses a small electric current to open channels in the cell’s surface, so that the code can tap into the DNA of the patient and reprogram it into a pluripotent state so that it can then heal any area of the body. It is currently only in use in animals, but its possibilities to save people’s lives is beyond imagine – and beyond the scope of this essay!


However it did help me answer a question on the name and opening verse of this week’s Sedra. The first time we encounter the word Eikev is in the Garden of Eden after the Sin; one aspect of the punishment is that mankind would crush the snake’s head and the snake would bite our eikev – heel.  The second time is after the Binding of Isaac when Avraham is praised, eikev – because he listened to Hashem.


Eikev can thus be translated either as “because” or as a “heel”. Most famously Yaackov was named so because he was holding the heel of his twin brother at birth. Eisav also uses a derivative of his name, ya’akveini implying deception to accuse Yaackov of stealing the birth-right and blessings. However after his famous night-time battle with the angel, Yaackov’s name is changed to Yisrael meaning Prince of Hashem. He shrugs off the Yaackov – heel image and re-emerges as Yisrael – the Prince.


Why then when the word eikev is used at the start of this week’s Sedra does Rashi translate it as heel? The Torah says; all this (blessing) will happen to you, eikev- because you will listen to My Mitzvot. But Rashi translates it with the lowly heel connotation; the blessing will happen to you, even though you only keep the Mitzvot with your eikev – heel. Why the negative aspect? And especially at this critical point in our history when we are just about to enter into Eretz Yisrael!


Enter our TNT.


I believe that the Torah wasn’t discouraging us, but just the opposite, it was empowering us. At this critical moment in our history we were being injected with TNT, and what an explosive power it was! Hashem was saying to us that even when we keep Mitzvot with ‘just our heel’, we are still transforming the world. We sometimes belittle ourselves, or listen to others knock us down with the accusation that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t committed enough, that we aren’t fulfilling Hashem’s charge to make this world a dwelling place for Him. Well I believe that we are, for that is the unique quality of the Jew; even when we are ‘just’ keeping the Mitzvot with our ‘heel’, we are still changing the world. For our Spiritual DNA, our Neshama is pluripotent; it has the properties of TNT and we can transmogrify this world with our every action.


Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto may have received the Nobel prize for physiology with their research and hopeful breakthrough, but you and I receive a far greater prize every single day. And no electronic chip needs to be inserted into our skin, we have all the tools already at our disposal: Jewish TNT!

Sticks, Stones and Names

Sticks, Stones and Names

Vayishlach 5777

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me.” A school ground phrase that was first printed in the 1870’s; referred to back then as an ‘old adage’, and some have even tried to connect it to various verses in Psalms.


Truth be told though, the wounds inflicted by sticks and stones will often heal, whereas names can leave scars that last forever.


The opposite is also true; you can raise a child up to dizzying heights and set them on the course of success simply by giving them a good name. As the Mishna says “a good name rises over them all’. (Ethics of the Fathers 4:13)


In this week’s Torah portion we read of Yaackov’s name change to Yisroel following on from his midnight battle with the angel of Eisav. This is the beginning of stage two in our history, when we go from being known as Ivrim to Israelites. (See here for the significance of the name Ivri.) When giving Yaackov his new name the angel says: כי שרית עם אלוהים ועם אנשים ותוכל – for you struggled with angel and man and you succeeded. What is puzzling though, is that the new name Yisroel is etymologically connected with the word struggle. His new name is given for the struggle not for the victory!


That though is precisely why that name was give. The Jewish nation had progressed onto stage two; no longer were we just Ivrim – constantly relegated to the other side, but now we were princes of Hashem, for Yisroel is translated as Sar-el – Prince of G-d. This name was how we were known once we were given the Promised Land, when we were riding high with the Temple in Jerusalem and were the pride of the Fertile Crescent.


This is precisely why the angel connected it to the struggle and not the victory.


Anyone can win a battle, but it takes a man to struggle.


Quite tellingly, even after the blessing of his new elevated name, the Torah still uses the name Yaackov. One would have thought that that name, so given for he was holding on to the heel (Ekev – Yaackov), would now be relegated to history. But that is not the case, and indeed in our Amidah we call on Hashem the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaackov. What happened to this new elevated and princely name Yisroel?


We are back to the struggle and the impact of a name. Were we to be given the name ‘Prince of G-d’, were our past struggles to be totally erased and forgotten, were we to focus on the victory and not the struggle then it wouldn’t last long. It would be a name but not an identity. It would be a gift bestowed upon us by an angel, but not our well-deserved destiny. As they say in the hallowed halls of the SAS, “Its far harder to keep your Green Beret, than it is to get it in the first place”.  


Just being given the name Yisroel, even if it is fully deserved does not mean that our job is done; we need to keep struggling, we need to maintain the work necessary to carry that name.


Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Dovid

Cushions and Monuments – Vayetzeh 5777

Cushions and Monuments

Stones From Start To Finish

Vayetze is one long closed paragraph. It is the longest such paragraph in the Torah, being over 7500 letters long. It is not surprising therefore, that there is a direct correlation between its start and finish, even though over 34 years had passed in the interim.


We begin with Yaackov stopping for the night on his midnight dash fleeing from his brother Esav. This of course had been pre-empted by the sudden setting of the sun, thereby prompting him to stop on Mount Moriah, which would later on become the Temple Mount. Before going to sleep, Yaackov takes from the stones on the mountain top and arranges them around his head as protection.


The Sedra ends with Yaackov once again taking stones and arranging them. This time it is when he makes a pact with his father-in-law Lavan, who was disappointed that he had not been able to send off his daughters in a fitting manner. This monument of stones was in essence a permanent truce between Yaackov and Lavan as well as their descendants for all time.


What though is the correlation, if any, between these two incidences?


The Biblical Grammarians point out the use of the letter ‘vav’ as a dynamic introduction on both occasions. ויקח מאבני המקום “and he took from the stones of the place” (Gen 28:11), and then again והמצפה אשר אמר – “and the watch tower” (Gen 31:49).


When Yaackov stopped to rest at the beginning of his epic journey, he makes a conscious decision to take from the stones of the place and arrange them as a protection around his head. He was heading out into the wide world with which he was going to have to interact, but he took from that world and asked the Almighty to work together with him and protect him on his journey.


34 years later, at the end of that journey (and our Sedra), he was being challenged by Lavan; he was told that he could not take back that which he had made in the Disapora with him to the Holy Land. Yaackov responded by once again taking from the stones of the place and this time setting them up as a witness, with the Almighty acting as the guarantor. He told Lavan that all his achievements, everything that he had gained whilst away from his father’s house, whilst in exile away from the Holy Land, was specifically for use back home.


{Lavan tried to then corrupt it by calling the monument by a local name, but Yaackov gave it its Hebrew and spiritually significant name.}


This Sedra in essence mirrors our life.


When we are born, we are like Yaackov at the beginning of his journey and it is our duty, often played out by our parents, to take from this world and ask the Almighty to grant us the protection to enable us to do our job. After 120 years, when we prepare to return to our Father in Heaven, we need to be able to say to the world, ‘everything that I have achieved whilst on my journey here has a purpose, it wasn’t just for use whilst in exile, but is actually a watch tower that guards over me whilst I go back home – and the Almighty is my witness to this.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Dovid


{Thanks to my Hebrew Professor C Fierstone for the inspiration for this article}





Blameless Eisav? Toldot 5777

Blameless Eisav? Toldot 5777

Ying and Yang. Dark and Light. Good and Bad.


This week we are introduced to twins who could not have been more different to each other; Yaackov and Eisav.


Yaackov is the diligent Torah student, whereas Esav is the hunter. Their mother is promised that one will rise whilst the other falls; and indeed, the rise and fall of their respective empires, Rome and Israel have truly been in contrast to each other. In Cheder we were taught that Eisav was the epitome of a naughty boy, doomed already from birth to pursue idol worship and throw off the shackles of his father’s household.


Interestingly though, when describing the twins entrance into maturity, the end of their childhood (and according to many, their Bar Mitzvah), the Torah says Vayigdeloo Hane’arim – and the lads grew up (25:27).


Whilst the literal meaning of this is simply that Yaackov and Eisav were now legally adults, the Zohar throws a whole new spin on the Passuk. This verse, says the Zohar, is referring to the twins spiritual standing and it indicates that they were both Gedolim, spiritual giants following in the footsteps of Avraham and Yitzchak.


Yes, Eisav as well as Yaackov (for the Torah uses the plural verb), was a Tzaddik!


Either we need to re-evaluate our opinion of Eisav or the definition of a Tzaddik.


At this point in my Rabbinical career, I don’t really want to start questioning the status of Tzaddikim, so let us instead question our traditional views about Eisav. Here was a man, born to Yitzchak and Rivka, a grandchild of Avraham and Sarah, and a twin to Yaackov. Both nurture and nature dictated that he would be a good boy, that he would grow spiritually and religiously.


Which indeed he did, although it would seem that it wasn’t easy. For whilst the Torah testifies that when the twins were Bar Mitzvahed they were both righteous, it also tells us that whilst in utero, Eisav was already drawn towards idol worship. The Zohar attributes this change in Eisav’s behaviour to Avraham’s dedication and influence; he educated his grandson to overcome his natural tendencies. Avraham is described as being the epitome of the attribute of Chessed – loving kindness, and he showered his grandson, his confused and embattled grandson, with loving education and support.


What went wrong then? Why does Eisav ultimately revert to type? What happened during his adolescence to unpick all the good work accomplished during his childhood?


The simple answer is that Avraham, his loving, kind, understanding and patient grandfather passed away. Eisav lost his mentor and the one man who believed in him. It became so easy for him to slide, to pick up his natural tendencies to misbehave and let it all unravel.


But what about his father? Yitzchak was the opposite of Avraham, he was Gevurah – strict discipline to Avraham’s Chessed – loving kindness. {The child of this marriage was Yaackov who embodied the attribute of Tifferes – beauty in balance.}


This isn’t to blame Yitzchak; his discipline was necessary, for without it Avraham’s kindness will get overrun. But rather it is to stress the importance of maintaining the loving traditions and the ‘old world education’ of yesteryear. The love of Yiddishkiet that our Bubbas and Zeides gift to their Einicklech must continue even when they are no longer physically around. We have an awesome responsibility to ensure that their passion for transmitting a love and appreciation of Torah remains.


So the next time we see a rebellious child, a modern day Eisav, stop to think for a moment before we condemn him out of hand. Ask yourself what would be different if her Bubba was here to guide with a loving hand and a soft cheek to rest against. We need education and discipline, we need to maintain rules and regulations, but we also need to hear the cry of the child as they crave that loving kindness of our Zeideh Avraham.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Dovid