Wrestling God to a Draw

This is a d’var Torah (a brief interpretation, literally a word on the Torah) I gave at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta on December 13th, 2019. As the relevant Torah portion is coming up again this week, I’m posting it now.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Eugene Delacroix, 1861

We read: Vay’taver Yaakov l’vado—and Jacob was left alone; vaya’avek ish imo, and a man wrestled with him, ad alot hashachar—until the dawn.

The ish grappled with him, grabbing the hollow of his thigh—which the Midrash says means his descendants. The Midrash also calls the ish a sar, a protecting angel sent by God. The Angel begs release, but Ya’akov says, Lo ashalaychachah, ki im berachtani—I will not let you go unless you bless me. What blessing?—a name change: Ya’akov will now be called Yisra-el—ki sarita im Elokim v’im anashim, vatuchal—because you struggled with God and with men, and you prevailed.

His grandfather had a verbal wrestling match with God. What if there are 50 good people in Sodom and Gomorah? What if there are 45, surely you won’t destroy them for a difference of 5? And so on from 45 down and down to 10, Avraham apologizing but insisting every step of the way.

Now, God knows how this will turn out, right? So it’s not for God’s edification; it must be a lesson for Avraham: Yes, you can question God; you should question God.

When God says to Noach, I think I’ll destroy the world by flood, go ­­­build an ark. Noach by his silence says, How big?

For Avraham, the first Jew, it’s, You want to destroy two whole towns? That’s not like You!

A tradition begins. His grandson Ya’akov wrestles an angel to a draw, and pays a price, but gets a blessing.

Moses at first comes back from Pharoah and tells God, You have only made things worse, You have done nothing for this people! And God replies, Now you will see what I will do to Pharoah!

It’s almost as if God was waiting for Moses to get angry.

Jeremiah says: You will prevail, O Lord, if I bring charges against you. yet I will speak judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper?

Psalm 44 asks, Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awaken, do not reject us forever!

And Lamentations laments, You have not forgiven. You have clothed Yourself in anger and pursued us, You have slain without pity. You have screened yourself off with a cloud, that no prayer may pass through.

Christianity does not encourage questioning God. Yet on the cross, Jesus asks, Eli Eli lamah sabachthani?—the only thing he says in his mother-tongue: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Even Jesus, knowing all he knows, has a Jewish side that questions God.

A medieval Hebrew poem, “The Poet’s Commandments to God” has 22 lines, & every one begins like commandments 6 to 10: Lo Tirtzakh, Lo Tinaf, & so on:

Thou shalt not despise the wretch who begs for mercy.

Thou shalt not scorn the lowly poor before Thee…

Thou shalt not rage at thy people for generations.

Thou shalt not forsake them, for their suffering is great…

Thou shalt not recoil from me, my Rock, my God, my refuge…

It goes on and on, and you can feel the love in the complaints.

One last story. Chasidic master Rav Levi Yitzhak asked Yankel the Tailor to speak to God from the bima on Yom Kippur. Yankel spoke: “I am a poor tailor who has not been too honest. I have occasionally kept leftover scraps of cloth, and I have missed Mincha. But You, O Lord, have taken away babies from their mothers, and mothers from their babies. On this Day of Days, let’s be quits. If you forgive me, I will forgive you.” The rebbe sighed, “Oh Yankel, Yankel! Why did you let God off so lightly?”

Even in accusations, the love of God persists; Jews cannot seem to let God go.

Yaakov after all was in a wrestling match, and it ended in a grip that was also an embrace. He would not let the Angel go without being blessed.

And so with anyone who is Jewish, by birth or by choice: Jews are destined to strive with God in an embrace, because Jews are the people who were blessed with the name Yisra-El.

Chanukah Miracles

We had come to New York partly to celebrate the holidays, but mainly try to help with a new grandchild, due officially on December 24th—the second day or third night of Chanukah, as well as Christmas Eve and our son Adam’s birthday—but expected any time. We came up on Sunday the 15th, and a week later, with twelve hours to spare before the first candle, my stepdaughter Logan and daughter-in-law Leah were blessed with their new son Rivers—naharot in Hebrew—at 5:36am, 7lb. 6oz., healthy and strong with a lusty cry.

Within a few hours he was enjoying the bounty of life (I want to say chalav u’d’vash, milk and honey) Continue reading

The New Moon

Friday night we arrived for Shabbat dinner at the home of our daughter, son-in-law (who makes the best matzo-ball soup ever, although not on the day after Thanksgiving), and their kids. Both grandchildren came to the door along with the noisy dogs: Ethan, seven (“and three quarters”), sleek in his Star Wars pj’s and done with cancer, and Hannah, four, in a dress embroidered with her name, for once announcing neither of the sisters from Frozen but, proudly, herself.

“You didn’t miss anything!” Ethan yelled, as they both fell into a close chat with Nana.

I waited for a pause in the conversation and said, “But you two missed something!” It was a warm evening, so I urged them out on the front lawn even though they were barefoot, pointing at the bright crescent dangling in the western sky.

Hannah’s exuberance took her too close to the street, so I shouted her back, as Ethan asked, “Is it December?”

“Not yet,” I said, “but it’s Kislev. That’s the moon of Kislev, the moon of Chanukah.”

Ethan said, “Hannah, it’s not December but it’s Kislev, the moon of Chanukah.” He began to sing, and Hannah chimed in,

                               O Chanukah O Chanukah

                               Come light the menorah,

                               Let’s have a party,

                               We’ll all dance  the hora…

I figured I would have too much of that soon enough, so I herded them inside, and after an hour of chaos we were sitting down to delicious leftovers. Our son Adam and his partner were also there, so it was pretty much a repeat performance of the Thanksgiving dinner the evening before.

Thursday night we had gone around the table saying what we were thankful for. When my turn eventually came I said, “I’m thankful for the family of my dreams, which happens to be sitting around this table.” I did mention those who were absent, either just from the table or from the earth. I did not mention how grateful I was that Ethan was no longer in the hospital.

Last night, Saturday, we sat with two dear, long-standing friends at a trendy new Israeli restaurant. Like us, they are in the grandparent stage of life, quite delicious if everyone is healthy and normal—whatever that is.

There is an old Yiddish riddle, What’s the difference between nakhes and a mekhaya? You have to know that nakhes means joy, especially the kind of joy you take in children, and that a mekhaya is the ultimate relaxation—what the old men in my childhood Brooklyn neighborhood used to say when they came back from the Turkish steam baths: Oy, it’s such a mekhaya.

            So the answer to the riddle: Nakhes is when the grandchildren come to visit; a mekhaya is when they leave. That lofty, happy, ultimately not-responsible-for-the-bedtimes condition of life is what we mostly talked about. They have two more grandchildren on the way, we have one, all in all a sense of increase.

The Jewish population of the world today is the same as it was in 1939, while the world population as a whole has doubled twice.

I asked the young server if the octopus was kosher, and she said yes, but a bit uncertainly, before I gave her a fist bump and explained why it couldn’t be. The food was very good, high-end Israeli cuisine, the conversation was better, the drinks did their job. At our stage of life, you can easily spend a couple of hours on family without noticing the time.

Our friends have three grown and settled daughters—I held their youngest in my arms at age eight days and saw her happily wed last New Year’s Eve. Their eldest and her family have lived in Israel for seven years, and one of the new grandkids will be her third. So the conversation turned to politics.

All of us are New Israel Fund kinds of people—love the idea of Israel, hate the trends of recent decades, contribute dollars to combat right-wing and theocratic injustice. Come January, Israelis will vote in their third national elections in a year. Twice the electorate was evenly divided, and both times neither the right nor the center-left could form a government.

The divisions are very bitter. Our friend’s daughter was riding her bike along the Mediterranean when she heard the first election result. She felt as if she had just been told she was going to go through a divorce. The prospects are painfully uncertain, but one thing is sure: it’s not my grandfather’s Israel.



Balak and Balaam in India

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, has new meaning for me since our recent trip to India. We visited two synagogues in Kochi (Cochin) that are not currently active and two in Mumbai (Bombay) that still are, and these visits were deeply moving. But it was a museum visit in Kochi that made me see this week’s parshah in a different way.

We followed a guide through the Hill Palace, the royal seat of the kings of Kochi for centuries. The Palace crowns a hill with a long wide terraced flight of steps through exquisite gardens. The museum within has scores of valuable artifacts, but my attention was arrested in a semi-darkened room by what turned out to be a six century old Torah scroll.

The parchment too was darkened, and there were only four columns visible, Continue reading

Tamar and Judah: A #MeToo Moment?

My D’var Torah on Vayeyshev, Congregation Shearith Israel, Atlanta, November 30, 2018:

Plunked into the middle of the story of Joseph, we have one of the strangest episodes in the Jewish Bible, and one which would surely be censored in an expurgated edition. Joseph’s brothers have sold him down the river, and Jacob is in mourning because they’ve showed him Joseph’s coat soaked in a baby goat’s blood.

Suddenly we are out of the life of Joseph and in the life of his elder brother Judah—Yehuda—who ultimately would give his name to our religion and our people. Judah takes a Canaanite wife and has three sons with her.

When the first one, Er, grows up, Judah makes a shidduch for him with Tamar. But Er displeases God and dies childless, so—following Torah law—Judah calls on his second son, Onan, to do his duty and father children with Tamar.

But Onan spoils his seed on the ground, a slap in the face to his brother, father, and God, so he dies too— Continue reading

A Shoah Survivor on the Pittsburgh Synagogue Attack

With Tosia Szechter Schneider‘s gracious permission, I am posting her very moving remarks on the synagogue attack this fall in Pittsburgh:

tosia1My name is Tosia Schneider, after losing my whole family in the in the Shoah, in that whirlwind of hate, that engulfed Europe, I remember standing on the deck of  the SS Marine Flasher in 1949,  as we passed the Statue of Liberty,  I thought, that this is indeed a new world, a world without hate, a world where anti Semitism  will never raise its ugly head again.

What naïve and wishful thinking! A world without anti-Semitism… Continue reading

A Passover Meditation from a Shoah Survivor

I was very moved by the following brief speech my friend Tosia Szechter Schneider made at the “Unity Seder” at Atlanta’s leading reform Temple last month. It is really a poem as much as a speech, a poem about hope and memory. It is stunning to remember as we celebrate this feast of liberation, that there are people among us who in their own lifetime have actually gone from being slaves to being free. For more about Tosia, her life, and her remarkable memoir, see this foreword to her book, Someone Must Survive to Tell the World, available here.

Seder: From Tyranny to Freedom  

Invited remarks delivered by Tosia Szechter Schneider at the “Seder of Unity” at The Temple, Atlanta 3/13/2018

Tosia SchneiderIn the days of old, a pillar of smoke led the way for Moses and the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery.

In our time, there were only the smokestacks of Auschwitz.

Unlike our ancestors, who fled their slavery with gold and silver, survivors were stripped of all their possesions, what was left were memories and scars, deep scars that never heal.

Jews lived in Poland for a thousand years.

The 16th century was The Golden Age of Polish Jewry. Poland was then refered to as:“Paradisus Judeorum,” a Jewish paradise. That paradise turned into a raging inferno in our time.

I grew up in a little town in eastern Poland, Horodenka. Continue reading

The Life of Isaac

Another D’var Torah I delivered Friday evening at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta. It touches on the Torah portions Vayera, Chayei Sarah, and Toledot.

To understand Isaac, we have to go back to the beginning, when his mother Sarah laughed at the idea that she could have him—before her pregnancy. She’s too old. She thinks it’s funny. God says, Why did you laugh? I can do it. She lies to God: I didn’t laugh. God says, No; you did laugh.

Then after his birth and bris, she says, “God brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Kol hasomeya yitzchak li. So that’s his name: Yitzchak. You could say that he was conceived in a kind of doubt of God’s power, followed by a silly lie to God. But he was born in joy. How happy she must have been, after a lifetime of wanting to be a mother. How glad to have been proven wrong. How much she must have loved him.

So he grew up with a name that meant something between a joke and a joy.

Fast forward to the Akedah. Dad says, Let’s go up the mountain and make a sacrifice. Isaac says, Okay, where’s the sheep? Dad says, God will provide. Okay, now he’s tying me up. Now he’s holding a knife over me. I think I’m supposed to just lie here quietly.

Isaac lives. But some rabbis think Abraham failed that test. Continue reading


A d’var Torah I delivered last year at Congregation Shearith Israel, Atlanta, on the Friday evening of the Sabbath when the portion known as Toldot is read:

Toldot, it seems, is a hard word to translate. Sometimes it’s given as “generations,” but that’s not right; sometimes as “story,” but those who know say it’s more than that. Toldot Yitzkhak means something like “the accomplishments of Isaac.” It’s his resumé. It’s what you need to know about him. But is it really about Isaac?

As I hope you know I am no expert on the Torah, but fortunately I did not have to do this on my own. Rabbi Bernard Berzon, the beloved spiritual leader of my childhood, left a book of sermons, and the one on Toldot has this message: Choose the right grandfather. Each of us has two. Of the twins, Esau chose Bethuel, an ordinary man at best; but Jacob chose Avraham.

I like to think I have chosen the right rabbis. Rabbi [Mel] Sirner suggested that I talk about Rebecca, which was fine with me. She is everywhere in Toldot—from the time she feels the twins contending in her womb—sh’nay goyim—two nations—to the time when she overturns the prescribed succession in the lineage, and to top it off tells Isaac that Jacob must marry one of her own relatives.

Arnold Goodman was my rabbi for many years, and in one of four sermons of his on Toldot that I’ve read, he distinguished between “Isaac love” and “Rebecca love.” We read that “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” V’Rivka ohevet et Ya’akov. Isaac loved Esau in return for something. Rebecca just loved Jacob, period. Rabbi Goodman also quoted the poet Goethe: What you have inherited from your ancestors, take hold of it in order to make it your own.

Today I had lunch with Rabbi [Emanuel] Feldman the elder, for four decades the leader of Congregation Beth Jacob, and of course I asked him about Toldot. He agreed with a very secular critic, Harold Bloom, that here as in many places throughout the Tanakh, the pivotal character is a woman. Rebecca makes the choice that determines the future.

I pressed him on the trickery—some might say treachery—which Rebecca perpetrates on the dying Isaac, carried out almost too well by Jacob. I also pressed him on the anguish felt by Esau, and shared by his father, when they realize what has been done to them.

He pointed out that earlier, when Esau trades his birthright for pottage, he barely misses a beat. “He ate, he drank, he got up, he went away.” Vay’khol, vayeysht, vayakam, vayeylakh. That’s it. In this way, the Torah says, he belittled his birthright. By the way, there are proverbs in both Yiddish and Ladino that make reference to Esau in making fun of a stupid businessman.

Rabbi Feldman also said something we all intuit: Isaac is the most passive of all the patriarchs. After the akeda, when he is almost sacrificed, he seems to belong to another world. But Rebecca understands this world and all its flaws. She knows she is breaking the rules. But she knows too that it is Jacob who has chosen Avraham as his grandfather, and that he is the one who will carry the legacy forward into the future.

We hear that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. I think men are from Mars and women are from Earth. On the one hand, Isaac has his head in the clouds, but on the other hand he cares too much about the taste of hunted meat. Rebecca, meanwhile, has her eye and her mind on the heritage of the past and on all the generations to come.