Saturday, September 24, 9707


"Ezehu ashir?" our Rabbis ask: Who is rich? The answer: "Ha-sa-me-ach b'chelko." He who is happy with his portion.

To the myriad expansions and interpretations of this teaching -- it's broad enough to apply to money, love, success, friendships, etc, -- I take a more targeted approach deriving from the occurrence of the same word in another famous expression, "Vetain chelkeynu b'Toratecha." And give us our portion of Your Torah.

This latter phrase, containing the word "chelek," portion, is puzzling. Why would we be asking G-d for our portion in His Torah? We've already received the Torah. What more could we be asking for here?

An explanation I've heard attributed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Z'TS'L, much to my liking, is when we ask G-d for our portion of His Torah, we are asking Him to help each of us to find their own unique personal, individual insight into the Torah, with the understanding that each and every Jew has something to add to Torah knowledge through their own original insight -- should they be fortunate enough to find it.

Not everyone gets to go to Yeshiva or study for the rabbinate. Does this mean they have nothing to add to Torah knowledge? On the contrary. Like another famous statement, "Kol Yisroel yes lahem chelek la-olam haba," meaning all Jews have a portion in the World to Come, according to this interpretation, we all have a chelek in Torah reserved especially for us with our unique talents and understanding. We can count ourselves fortunate when we find it. And we can spread Torah knowledge and interest in the Torah by sharing.

My particular slant may seem foreign to "proper" Torah scholars. I have a background in the arts, and I do literary analysis, basically. I do not think the Torah is a literary work of art, chas v'shalom, but it lends itself to the same kinds of hermeneutics (schools of interpretation) that, in the past, I have applied to purely literary works -- and to films.

Our rabbis teach us there is an art and science to interpreting the Torah. There are rules and guidelines and practices well beyond my understanding. Yet with the particular insight I've honed over the years in secular pursuits, I see new light in the Torah all the time.

This, then, is the purpose of this blog. It is a sharing of my chelek of Torah which I have found, and, yes, I am very happy with my portion ...

How The Associated Hebrew Day Schools Let Me Down

Before we begin at The Beginning, I have moved up a personal piece of mine which I want to make more immediately accessible to readers. I think my experience may well have relevance for today's students in whatever schools they are in, so I've put it at the beginning of my blog to make it easy to find.

I have decided to vent a little as to how I feel the educational system at the Associated Hebrew Day Schools of Toronto let me down in such a way as to abandon me to a life of economic and personal failure, and the distress that goes along with that. Strong words, no? Well, read this story. I've been putting off writing it for quite some time, but ... File this under the "Etc" of the overall title of this blog. As American philospher George Santayana said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Here, therefore, is a contribution to the collective memory so that at some distant time when there is the risk of this happening to someone else, perhaps, now, it won't.

Scene I

Here is a tale of two men who we find, one winter night, in the Emergency Department of a major hospital in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). One is a patient, sent to hospital by his family physician to get intravenous antibiotics for a pesky cellulitis infection which, if left unchecked, could kill him. The other, the doctor in charge of the Emerg that night.

As the doctor comes in to see the patient, both of their faces light up in mutual recognition. They had both attended the same campus of the Associated Hebrew Day Schools. At times, they had even been in the same class.

"How are you?" they ask each other, shaking hands, each pleasantly surprised to see a friendly face. Some routine catching up ensues. Finally, the doctor asks the patient, "I can't remember; did you graduate from CHAT (Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, the High School of the Associated Hebrew Day Schools of Toronto)?"

"Nope," says the patient. "I had to drop out."

"That's too bad," replies the doctor. "What have you been doing all these years?"

"I've been a file clerk for the past twenty-five years," the patient answers, with a tinge of resignation in his voice. "Many of our former classmates seem to have done well, though. You're a doctor, as are many of the others, some are lawyers, some are professors, some are successful writers. It was a good class."

"Yes, it was" agreed the doctor [Note: I know I just changed tense here. It works for me.] "It's too bad you didn't graduate."

"Well," said the patient, "I had no choice. I was always a dreamy kid who had trouble focusing, all through school. Early on, I was able to get by but it caught up with me in Grades 8, 9, and 10. I started floundering academically."

"In my final year at the Associated, Grade 10," he went on, "I got 38% in my first term Science course, which was Botany, a subject I just could not get my head around. To add insult to injury, my mark was read out to the class, to a chorus of whistles and cat-calls. That term, I also got 48% in Geography."

"I was lucky to escape the year with a 63% average," said the patient. "There was no way I could stay. The writing was on the wall. I would have flunked the next year, so I bailed, and went to a public High School where, with the lighter course load, i.e. no Hebrew curriculum, I did better. It was just easier. A lot of kids like me had to drop out of the Associated."

"I know," said the doctor. "I was almost one of them myself. In Grade 11, I was flunking out. My poorest subject was English."

This caught the interest of the patient, who, to that point, had endured a lifetime of low status, low paying employment. How did one become a successful doctor, starting from the same bad school situation?

"I had help," said the doctor. "A teacher took me aside, and worked with me until I managed to turn things around. Actually, I ended up as valedictorian for English studies!"

End of scene.

I don't think I need to explain that, in the above scene, which actually happened, I was the patient. Now let's read "the rest of the story ..."

Having fled the Associated in total confusion, self-hatred, self-doubt, and disarray, I arrived for my first guidance counselling session at Downsview Secondary School, my new academic home for the next three years. Downsview was a good school; also, my neighbourhood friends went there. Of course, though, I was nervous.

"Welcome," said Mr. Vanstone, a pleasant, sincere man who also taught Geography (uh-oh). After we both settled in, Mr. Vanstone asked the question he must have asked a thousand times during his career at Downsview. "Well, Gord, what would you like to be?"

It's hard to describe the state of my mind at the time. Let's just say I was so crushed by my failure at the Associated, and so apprehensive of repeating it at Downsview, that I literally did not think I could be anything. Surely, Mr. Vanstone knew this. Why was he asking? Just to make sure, I explained it to him.

"Well, I don't know," I said. "Last year, at my previous school, I got 38% in Science, and 48% in Geography in the first term, and I just managed to scrape by with a 63% overall average for the year."

"I know," said Mr. Vanstone, "but I think you can be anything you want to be."

"Excuse me?," I said, despairing of his ever understanding me.

"Well, Gord," he said. "We have IQ test results for you which show you can do just about anything you want (in fact they all would have qualified me for Mensa, the Grade 11 result being the minimum age required -- not that that means all that much, after all, since Mensa comprises the top two per cent IQ, which is two out of every hundred, and there are a lot of groups of a hundred in the population. Mensa is not such an exclusive club, and I was/am certainly no Einstein -- but then again, Einstein was no Gord Lindsay!).

In my confused emotional state, I asked "Which tests?"

"Well," replied Mr. Vanstone calmly, "we have the test you took here, earlier in the year, and there are two tests from your former school, the Associated Hebrew Day Schools. You actually scored a little higher on those than on the one you took here. They're all high results, though, and I'm wondering if you'd like to join an extracurricular group of gifted students."

Despair and exhilaration fought each other to a tense standoff inside of me.

On the one hand, not having been privy to my I.Q. scores before, it was quite a happy shock for me to hear I was bright; on the other hand, why didn't I feel it? Why didn't I know it? Did I know it, deep down? Or did I merely suspect it, without daring to believe it? Hey, not only was I confused, I was an adolescent.

"No," my self-doubt won the day. "I wouldn't feel comfortable in a group of gifted students. I'd feel like a fake."

End of scene -- and a singular opportunity.

I shouldn't have to point out -- though I will -- that the dissonance I was feeling inside of me mirrored the peculiar paradox of my IQ versus my grades which went on at the Associated Hebrew Day Schools. Did they not see this discrepancy? Were they perhaps too understaffed to actually read the IQ test results? Were they as screwed up and confused as I was? It certainly seemed that way.

The lack of intervention at the Associated baffled me, and contributed to my suspicion that maybe the IQ test results had gotten mixed up -- no, the Downsview test result was similar -- but hearing that I had a high IQ actually contributed to my confusion. Why had the Associated not told me? Why, at a time when an adolescent is in the tender stages of forming a self-image that will last him the rest of his life, were there no encouraging words? All I knew, throughout this formative time, was that I was a 38 and 48 percenter. No one told me differently, certainly not at the Associated, and that stigma went deep into my soul, notwithstanding that also deep down, I must have known I was bright. Way to help a guy who's having trouble, to overcome his problems, and to believe in himself -- not.

The Associated's indifference, letting a young student who they knew had a lot of potential simply lie, hopeless and afraid, face down on the floor without ever offering him (me) a hand up continued to puzzle me for years.

And, as stated above in Scene I, I was not alone. "Sink or swim" was the apparent policy of the school at the time. One can only hope the current leadership has a different outlook but when I was there, hundreds of students fell off the truck of the Associated Hebrew Day Schools educational program.

Many fell off that truck because the Big Lie ruled in those days, a lie which, in my opinion, the school used to exempt itself from fulfilling its fiduciary responsibility to educate which, in the pure sense of the term, means "to lead [someone] out."

Here's how it worked. "Johnny's not doing well here at the Associated because of the double course load of English studies and Hebrew studies," a teacher would say. "He'll do better at a public school where the course load is lighter."

And, to make what I call the Big Lie seem like the truth, many of the Johnnies, myself included, actually did get better grades in the public school system.

Why, then, do I call it The Big Lie?

Think back to Scene I above. There were two people in that Emergency Room. Both had gotten decent grades in their respective High Schools. Both had decent -- or high -- IQs. How is it one went on to become a doctor, marry, raise a family, and live a good life while the other one languished in the $20K salary range all his working life, never married ($20Ks? Next!), suffered low self-esteem, seemed unable to ever apply himself, and ended up declaring personal bankruptcy not because of wanton spending but because his credit cards overtook his all too modest salary, and, generally, was what you would call "an underachiever?"

Success in professions and life in general is something that comes when a person reaches maturity, attends university, goes into a profession, starts a business, and does whatever it takes to make it in the real world, i.e. they know how to apply themselves.

The challenges presented by the real world far exceed those faced by High School students in schools with easier curricula. Even undergrad university students are considered babies by the faculty until they reach the postgraduate level where the real work gets done, so success in High School is by no means a guarantee of success in the real world. And, for many, "success" in High School by way of fairly good marks is no indicator of whether or not students have learned to apply themselves -- which is the real determinant of success in the real world.

Of course, it always looks good when Johnny gets higher grades but there's a significant difference between getting good High School grades where there is a double course load, -- and an accelerated program, like at the Associated -- and getting "good" grades at a regular public school with a regular course load. The numbers may be identical but their meaning in terms of achievement is totally different.

But it looks good, and that's where the Big Lie comes in.

There is a curious word in the Chinese language. It stands for both crisis, and opportunity because in that culture, these are one and the same.

Simply put, by its "sink or swim" policy of the time, the Associated was depriving its floundering students of the opportunity to overcome their crisis. Instead of giving these students, myself included, the tools to succeed as, by some fluke, these were given to my classmate, the doctor, the Associated let us flounder and drop out, making us back away from the crisis, often never to face it again because by going to an "easier" school, i.e., one without a double course load, things never came to a head, i.e. no crisis, no opportunity.

Why should easy be good? Why is it somehow preferable to send a student to a school with an easier curriculum? It's not easy to become a doctor. You don't get there by taking current events instead of going to medical school. And if you take current events, you won't distinguish yourself in that pursuit unless you know how to apply yourself. AND, if your course load is light enough for a person of your native abilities to slide through and to do well without ever really learning how to apply yourself, well, fuggedaboudit! Although, cosmetically, your marks may be higher in a public school than they were at the Associated, you may not be doing better at all. You may, in fact, merely be setting yourself up for a lifetime of failure and disappointment -- which is what happened -- and continues to happen -- to me.

It's too easy to be satisfied with "decent" marks in High School. The High School students who have learned how to properly prepare for success in the real world don't settle for "decent". They have learned how to really apply themselves, and strive to be the best they can be. They are achievers.

And that's the Big Lie. Johnny is not doing better just because his marks went up when he transferred schools. Unless he excels beyond expectations in his new school, he's probably just coasting, and will carry the same failure-oriented limitations into his life in the real world. Had his problem been addressed at the Associated, however, had he been taught to overcome, he would be carrying the tools of success into his post-secondary life, an educated young man.

The Big Lie is that by running away from a crisis, you are helping yourself. Not so. You only help yourself -- and grow -- by facing the crisis, and resolving it. The Big Lie implies that the student lacks the resources to do this. This is a heinous lie, in many -- if not most -- cases.

Had I been floundering at Downsview Secondary, would I have gotten help? You betcha. Had there been a huge discrepancy between my IQ and other aptitude tests, and my grades, they would have been on me like white on rice. The problem was, with the lighter course load, I never had the kind of low marks which would have raised the red flag needed to alert them to my problem, and so I carried my uncorrected deficiencies into my adult life, lamentably, much to my detriment.

And, if there are any educators out there who don't know how to get floundering students to apply themselves, here's some free advice which any good consultant would charge a lot of money for:

If a student is floundering, the fundamental thing you have to do to help them is:

Make them feel you care about them.

This is not puff, New Age, touchy-feely sophistry; it's the real deal.

To put it another way, in my opinion, it is axiomatic that students who don't know how to apply themselves, are not sure their self is worth applying.

Yes. Self-worth. You've got to give students a sense of self-worth before they'll even begin to think of helping themselves. And don't lay this on the parents. The kids are in school. If it's all the parents' fault, and the school washes its hands of the responsibility, then we might as well take the child out of the institution, and let them have home schooling. If they're not connecting in school, why be there?

Any school can turn any student around. Work with them, give them that sense of self-worth, i.e. that the student is important enough to the school to merit concern and help, and students will start to apply themselves. Stick with them, and students will not only improve but will learn the important lesson of how to put the effort in to get the result, and, the most important lesson, to have enough faith in themselves to actually believe that this is possible for them.

When the Children of Israel were in the desert, G-d did a strange thing. He fed the people manna from Heaven, an open miracle, every day. Yet, with the exception of Friday, Erev Shabbat, He did not allow them to keep any over from day to day.

G-d, of course, could have given them a week's or a month's supply, and kept it fresh miraculously, as he did with the shirts on their backs. Instead, everyone had to hope and pray that G-d would remember to feed them each and every day for nearly forty years.

The Midrash tells us that this was G-d's way of training the heart in faith. He never disappointed -- but it took nearly forty years, six days a week to teach the heart to believe. Their eyes had seen the Sea of Reeds split, and they had intellectually -- and emotionally -- grasped G-d's power and believed in Him, yet that all went out the window at the first opportunity with the worship of the Golden Calf. The vagaries of the heart, G-d knew, required more than "seeing is believing." Repeated training and reassurance over time were Hashem's prescription for achieving a faith which would endure.

The hearts of underachieving students is where the battle lies for their attaining self-worth, and, consequently, academic improvement. The internalizing of self-worth may take many tutoring sessions to sink in, but when it finally does, the foundation for real progress will begin. The heart, after all, has years to learn and reinforce a negative self-image. It is not changed in a day.

One more scene:

The scene is the lobby of Mount Sinai Hospital where I worked for my 20Ks salary for twenty-five years, as a library clerk. There, on my break, I happen upon a former teacher of mine from the Associated Hebrew Day Schools. This was someone who was there from early days.

The teacher remembers me, and asks me if I graduated. I say I dropped out after Grade 10. "Aha!," the teacher says, always looking for the best in people, "you graduated from Junior High, and you work in a fine hospital like this. I'm proud of you!" I wince inwardly at the naivete regardless of whether it is real or just the result of politeness. Working in a fine hospital does not mean making a fine salary or having a fine position. I contribute to the hospital with my clerical work but I can't help but wonder what Mr. Vanstone would think of me, and all my unfulfilled potential.

"And you know," the teacher goes on, "we had an unwritten policy at the Associated, that if a student wasn't doing well, we wouldn't help them. That way, only the good students would graduate, and that would make the school look good."

And that, my friends, is the rest of the story, the missing, unbelievably cynical link, established by the founders of the Associated, and perpetuated likely unwittingly by subsequent generations of its teachers, which may explain it all.

Abandon the students having trouble. Let them flounder or coast somewhere else. They're not worth it.


End of my rant. I hope youngsters in school who run into trouble like this may benefit from parents' and educators' application of the principles described above. Of course, students who run into trouble in High School could get lucky later, i.e. at university, by seeking help there, unless, like me, they are also able to get through university without hitting the wall. If they do hit the wall, then maybe the remedial work they needed as teenagers could be accomplished at university. Furthermore, perhaps lighter course loads give students who were having trouble a respite from their difficulties, a boost in self-worth, and, the magical ability to suddenly excel at their studies in a manner previously unknown to them. It's like the old joke: two drunks walk out of a bar ... Hey, it could happen ... But it didn't happen to me. Getting "better" marks never gave me the feeling I was getting any better. I remained unfocused, and the deficiencies that caused me to drop out of the Associated continue to impair me to this day. When I think of my doctor classmate who got help, I can only dream of what might have been ... And, to put a little perspective on this, I, of course, recognize that the Associated did not cause my difficulties, so I do not hold them exclusively responsible for my plight. I just feel they were my best hope for help, and they let me down when they should have helped. I also appreciate all I learned there, and I don't hate them because they thought they were doing what was best. I think they were very wrong in their approach but being wrong is a common feature of the human condition. Even I make the occasional mistake.

"In The Beginning" Hints at Evolution Part 1

In The Beginning," or in Hebrew, "B'reisheet," is the first chapter (or, in Hebrew, "Parsha") of the Torah (or, in English, the "Bible"). Apart from its transcendent beauty, it is the subject of much debate, controversy, legislation, feuding, conflict, and polarization between the so-called Creationists (or Religionists) and the so-called Darwinists (or Evolutionists).

To avoid suspense, let me begin with my opinion, which is, that this controversy is without basis.

The supposed basis of the controversy which has caused governments to ban the teaching of the Bible in public schools is that if one interprets the Torah narrative of the creation of the universe literally, then one has to believe that in six Earth days, G-d created Heaven and Earth, and everything in them. This, of course, clearly contradicts the scientific evidence of both evolutionary, organic and inorganic development of the Earth and everything in it, apparently spanning billions of years.

As a believing Jew, I have no problem with the evidence of billions of years of development because I have my pick of any number of explanations, plus my own original interpretative theory.

For those of us who believe in G-d, it is indeed a rewarding and awe-inspiring exercise in faith to contemplate that, since G-d can do anything, perhaps He did create a complete Universe in six Earth days about 5,769 Earth years ago, in such a way that it had all the appearance -- and evidence -- of having been around for billions of years. To disbelieve that G-d could do such a thing is a grave, self-imposed limitation. After all, what is G-d, if not omnipotent? And what exactly does omnipotent mean, after all? Why should we puny humans try to handcuff the Master of the Universe with the feebleness of our own imaginations?

The i-Dea being, to stretch a little. Think of G-d ... as really G-D!!

What a concept.

What if, in fact, all the inferences of science as to the nature of the universe are based on a "factional" reality created and supported by G-d for the past almost six millennia? Not possible, the rational person says. But the rationale for the scientific person's belief system is based on appearances, not necessarily substance.

I'm just being the Divine's advocate here, but is it really necessarily so? Did we all personally witness the buildup of the Earth's surface layers over eons? Is there really only one explanation for the core samples of the Earth going down deep into our planet indicating different ages spanning billions of years? By our science, of course, there's no alternative to the chronological build up of these layers but is this explanation, derived, as it is, from our human observations, the only one? What if there were a Greater Power, believed in by many, who made it all look this way, right down to the apparent mutations of our mitochondrial DNA, but created it in a much shorter period of Earth time? The point here is, are we capable of even conceiving of a power so great as to mold the shape of mountains, continents and seas in a day?

The Earth appeared -- by the evidence of their observations -- to be flat at some point to some people who accepted it as such. Some may still (see Flat Earth Society) promote this point of view, albeit in jest. The serious point is, appearances -- and all logical inferences derived therefrom -- can deceive. And what, by the way, happens after you get to the smallest known particle, and you still can't account for what's beyond it?

Thus, the world appearing to have evolved over eons may merely be a collectively subjective perception, deduced from our studies. We, anchored in our understandings and observations of physical cause and effect, presume it must be so because it fits our view of the laws of physics and nature, as we have currently inferred them.

For those hidebound in this faith, I say "loose the shackles of your imagination." Let it play with the concept that G-d supports the universe constantly with His Will, and should He withdraw that Will, the so-called Laws of Nature would fall apart. Can we stretch our minds to conceive of a power greater than all the stars of all the galaxies or, more locally, the Sun? Able to move tall mountains and vast continents?

It is an exercise in imagination beyond the grasp of most scientifically-oriented people. Such people focus on evidence and phenomena so much that it blinkers them to what may be above such phenomena.

"The G-d above phenomena" describes the concept. To those dedicated to the study of phenomena, it's hard to see. Phenomena, we can see, or at least infer. We can't see G-d. And even inferring His existence can be risky business -- from a scientific point of view.

So, let's turn that basically Buddhist-inspired (but not necessarily approved of by Buddha) song of the late John Lennon -- may he be dwelling in the Heaven of his choice much to his delight -- one-eighty degrees. "Imagine there's a Heaven ... It's easy if you try ... No blinkers on our spirit ... G-d sits above the sky ..."

It's an exercise which many a thinking person would not dare to attempt. It takes them back to the shame they experienced growing up when they discovered there was no Santy Claus, or Tooth Fairy, or Superman (Oops! For those of you who still believed in these, sorry). They won't fall for that again, these True Believers that human beings know everything there is to know. What's real is real. I can see, taste, touch, smell, hear or at least infer it. There is nothing in the "real" world to support the concept of the almost instantaneous creation of billions of years of a planet's history.

Funny how we enjoy all kinds of fantastical, impossible things in movies, TV, and books, suspending our disbelief for the pleasure of engrossment. Why do you think we have Science Fiction? Apparently, we have a need to contemplate things beyond the world as we know it. So let's use this talent of ours, and say it again.

G-d created a world in six Earth days which, by all the evidence, appeared to have been around for billions of years. That's billions of years of history created in a few days!

Awesome, isn't it? It's one explanation embraced by a population of believers -- of different religions, by the way. And it's liberating to contemplate.

And why would G-d do such a thing? Why to give us humans, "derech ha-tevah," a natural order of things, in order to stabilize our lives in this immense universe, and provide a normal baseline for us to study and learn about ourselves and our world from our point of view, as our souls enjoy the life of experience a merciful G-d has bequeathed us.


Would I, however, dogmatically insist that everyone who believes in G-d accept the story of the Creation of the Universe, and the Earth, in its most simplistic, literal form? Nope. That's why I would never call myself a "Creationist" even though I do believe that G-d created all, or that everything came from the Mind of G-d.

I stand apart from Creationists because they don't merely believe that G-d created everything; they believe they actually understand how He did it -- just from reading the Bible, -- and they insist we accept their own literal view of what it all means.

The truth is, as much as we can enjoy the Bible's description of the creation of Heaven and Earth, we just do not have clue #1 as to how it all really happened. Nachmanides, aka the Ramban, a great and revered Jewish scholar, says as much, and his knowledge of the Bible was very great. He concluded that, despite the description in the Bible, the actual events of Creation are a mystery, and that anyone who claims they know how G-d created the Universe is simply blowing smoke. Remember, though, it's perfectly kosher to believe with complete faith one way or another. Knowing for a fact exactly what the Torah means in its description of Creation is, according to the Ramban, not possible.

I agree. As powerful and evocative a narrative as is the story of Creation, it's still pretty hard to figure out how it all works from the words alone.

So, on a very basic level, you can't really say that the belief that G-d created Heaven and Earth is unscientific because a) it's a matter of faith, and, more importantly, b) we don't really know how it all went down, and therefore, we can neither confirm nor deny whether or not the Torah story of Creation is scientifically viable. We don't really understand it. The description in Genesis is not meant to be a scientific proof. It really is a poetic outline, not a detailed log.

They say that genius, like a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo -- or like his legendary vocal artistry, (I also really like the late Jimmy Durante for this, even though I'm a big fan of "beautiful" voices, as well) -- has the ability to present depth and complexity in an elegantly simple way. The genius of the Torah, in fact, sets the standard for all genius when it takes an unfathomably complex topic like the creation of the universe, and distills it into a delightfully compelling six day story. This, we must infer, is all G-d wanted us to know about it, -- for now,-- but we must not fall into the trap of believing that it is everything there is to know. For instance, the actual length of a Day of Creation could easily be billions of years. We will know more, when we know more.

In fact, as I will explain in Part 2, the purpose of describing Creation at the beginning of the Torah was not to teach us about how everything came to be but to fulfill another function. In addition, we should know that the written Torah is a kind of a short-form abbreviation of all that G-d communicated to Moses. The Oral Teachings that Moses brought down to Joshua and the Elders fill in a lot of the gaps, some of which we are privileged to know, and some of which we are not currently privileged to know but they might well have had more of the specific details of Creation.

For those, therefore, who believe that the Earth's creatures have not evolved but were created whole instantaneously, I say, "You are RIGHT" to believe what you believe. The Torah is open to this interpretation. To those who say that creatures and the world have evolved, I say the very same thing.

So, to close Part 1 of this blog, I cannot agree that the assertion made in the Bible, that a Supreme Being created Heaven and Earth and all within them, conflicts in any way with the Theory of Evolution and the theories of the development of our planet because I can't possibly know how G-d went about creating Heaven and Earth from the biblical narrative alone. Anyone who says they do, is, in my opinion, indulging in premature speculation. I cannot, therefore, possibly have a conflict between scientific evidence, and the story of Creation. They currently work on different levels. In fact, my belief is, that when we understand the world through science well enough, and we understand the Torah well enough, we will find that the seemingly disparate realities represented by each are actually one and the same.

Next time, I will describe where I find a hint to evolution in the biblical narrative.

"In The Beginning" Hints At Evolution, Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog (which could be called a bblog, i.e. BibleBlog), I alluded to the real purpose of the Story of Creation being put at (or in) the beginning of the Torah.

According to Rashi, the premier encyclopaedic collator of commentary on the Torah, quoting a Rav Yitzchak, the Torah is a compendium of laws and guidelines for the Jewish people to live by. It should actually have begun with "Hachodesh hazeh lachem", loosely, "This month is your beginning," to denote the beginning of the Children of Israel's observance of commandments with the holiday of Passover.

As a book of laws for the Jewish people, the Torah need not actually concern itself with the creation of the universe at all. A well-known phrase embraced by religious Jews is "Torah tzivah lanu Moshe (Moses commanded us to keep the Torah)" which is all about keeping the commandments, not ooh-ing and aah-ing about Creation.

So why does the Torah start this way?

Because two Parshas (chapters) later, G-d promises the Holy Land of Israel to Abraham and his descendants.

After all, in those days, there were lots of gods. Each nation/tribe had its own god or gods. There were weather gods, war gods, Mesopotamian gods, Babylonian gods, Egyptian gods, wooden gods, stone gods, animal gods, sport gods, fertility gods, fashion gods, the list goes on and on.

The idea was that when the Jews (actually, the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob which is the Trifecta of Jewish lineage) laid claim to the land, they probably would encounter opposition from other tribe/nations, all claiming that their gods promised the land to them, too.

Thus, the reason, the Torah begins with the Creation of the Universe is to show that the G-d who made the promise to Abraham, is not a local, tribal deity but The One Great Power behind the entire universe, the G-d of all the heavenly powers and of all the tribal gods -- many of whom are, in fact, real powers in the affairs of humanity but subservient to the Ribono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, -- and what He says, goes.

This may be why the Torah does not go into excessive detail about Creation, in addition to the reason mentioned in Part 1, i.e., that the Written Torah is just a summary compared to the combination of it, and the Oral Torah together.

That, of course, does not mean the Written Torah is short on meaning. On the contrary, if one knows the rules of interpretation, it becomes clear that, in its succinctness, the Written Torah contains infinite myriads of secrets embedded in its words. These secrets require interpretation, and it is in this spirit of interpretation, that I find a possible allusion in the Written Torah to evolution.

Heavens, can it be? Well, I admit it sounds like heresy of the first order but hear me out.

My theory that a reference to evolution is hidden in the story of Creation is based on, as it were, "fundamental" principles of Torah interpretation. These are:

1. There are no unnecessary words in the Torah.

According to our sages, each and every word in the Torah is required. Moreover, Rabbi Akiva is said to have developed the art of understanding the meanings of the "crowns" or apparently ornamental lines shooting out from each letter of the Torah as handwritten by certified scribes (sophrim), and faithfully copied from generation to generation.

Then, because we are intellectually honest, we must admit that there is another side to the same coin, i.e.:

2. Some words in the Torah do seem unnecessary.

Often we find words that are simply not needed to convey the meaning of a sentence. They are seemingly superfluous. If the Torah were -- G-d forbid -- simply a work of literary art, we might say these additional words were there for aesthetics, i.e. metre, drama, alliteration etc. but this is definitely not the case.

This leads us to the third principle:

3. If a word is unnecessary, it means something extra.

Our sages teach us that whenever we encounter a word in the Torah which is not directly needed to convey the meaning of a sentence, then that word was put there to provide an insight above and beyond the meaning of the sentence, i.e. to teach us something.

An example would be the upcoming parsha "Lech Lecha." Here, G-d is telling Abraham (whose name at the time was still "Avram") to leave his homeland of Chaldea, and tells him "lech lecha."

"Lech," means "go." "Lecha," means "for" or "to" "yourself."

The second word in the phrase, "lecha," doesn't really seem to mean anything. G-d's command could have been communicated simply with the word "Lech," i.e. "Go from your land, the land of your birth, from your father's house to a land which I will show you."

Some might say G-d is enjoying the poetic echo in the similarity of the two words but, as mentioned above, aesthetics are not the purpose of curious, superfluous words.

One thread of interpretation of this extra word, "lecha," is that G-d is giving Abraham reassurance. It is a daunting task to just pick up and go from your native home to parts unknown. In fact, this is one of the tests that Abraham was given. Yet we see, in the word "lecha," (for yourself), a subtle hint from G-d that it will be to Abraham's benefit.

I personally, however, find another meaning in the phrase, "Lech lecha." I think it is meant to connect with the exact same phrase which occurs in an even later parsha, regarding the binding of Isaac for sacrifice. There, when G-d tells Abraham to take his only son from Sara up to Mount Moriah to be bound on the altar, G-d again uses this formulation, "Lech lecha." Another rule of interpreting the Torah is that if identical or very similar unique phrases or actions occur in the Torah, then they are tied together, and their relationship teaches something. More on "Lech lecha" when we arrive at its second occurrence in the Torah.

Now, how does evolution fit into these rules of interpretation?

As far as I know (which is not all that much -- I did not go to Yeshiva, and I am not familiar with all the commentaries), what I am about to say is a chidush, i.e. something new. It may, of course, actually be old (Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing new under the sun.") but I have not seen it anywhere.

Given the above-stated principles, let us examine the first sentence in the Torah, namely, "In the beginning, G-d created Heaven and Earth," as conventionally translated.

Now, let's look again at that phrase in the light of the beginning of this blog entry.

To state the glaringly obvious, the entire phrase "in the beginning," is unnecessary.

When else would G-d have created the world if not at the beginning? Of course it was in the beginning; that goes without saying.

Yet the Torah says it, so there's got to be a reason -- other than drama or poetry -- for this phrase.

Moreover, In the beginning of this blog entry, I stated that Rashi cites a comment that the purpose of using the Story of Creation in the beginning of the Torah is to establish the rights of the descendants of Abraham (later, that branch known as the Children of Israel) to the Holy Land.

If indeed, the purpose of starting the Torah with the Story of Creation is to establish the Jewish people's rights to the Holy Land, by showing that it is the Creator of All who made this covenant with Abraham, the phrase, "In the beginning," is also unnecessary for that purpose.

The purpose of showing that the G-d Who promised Abraham that his descendants through his son Yitzchak (Isaac) would inherit the Holy Land is the Master of the Universe could have been perfectly fulfilled without the phrase "In the beginning" or its Hebrew counterpart, the word "B'Reisheet."

The Torah could have said:

"G-d created the Heavens and the Earth," or if you will, the Hebrew, "Elokim bara eyt hashamayim ve'-eyt ha-aretz." This could alternatively be rendered in English as, "It was G-d who created the Heavens and the Earth."

That, after all, is supposed to be the point, that it was G-d who created everything, the same G-d who promised the land to Abraham.

Some may say we need the word, "B'Reisheet," because it starts with the second letter of the alphabet, Beit, indicating a prior Realm of G-d and/or another level of existence prior to our universe, symbolized by the first letter of the alphabet, Aleph, but if you had "Elokim barah eyt hashamayim etc.," you could teach the same concept by saying, "The first word in the Torah is a name of G-d, indicating that He preceded All Creation which is alluded to in the second word, "barah," and these two words begin, respectively with the letters, Aleph, and then Beit, indicating their order.

So, the phrase "In the beginning" is needed neither contextually nor subtextually, and now, we have a problem, or, just as the Chinese use the same word for both crisis and opportunity, an opportunity. What, according to Principle 3 above, can we learn from this unnecessary phrase/word, "In the beginning/B'Reisheet?"

And here's my disclaimer: there are certainly theories other than mine on this topic. One I have heard comes from the Vilna Gaon who said that the word "B-Reisheet" is a whole Torah in itself in that it contains all the mitzvahs of the Torah encoded, if you know how to manipulate the letters.

For instance, the Vilna Gaon simply took the letters of the word "B'reisheet," and using each letter to begin a word, found the commandment of "Pidyon Haben," the redemption of the firstborn male, a process of paying a token amount of money to a member of the priest class to "buy back" one's firstborn male child from G-d, the Master of the Universe having stipulated that all first fruits of the Jews are His, He having smitten the fistborn of Egypt in order to effect our escape from slavery.

The Gaon (a title reserved for great Torah geniuses) is said to have simply taken the Hebrew letters of the word B'Reisheet in their existing order and found "Bincha Rishon Acharei Shloshim Yom Tifdeh," i.e. "Your first son, after thirty days, you shall redeem," -- the exact commandment, in a linear contraction where each letter of the phrase/word "B'reisheet," starts a word.

The purpose, then, of having this seemingly unnecessary phrase, "In the beginning," according to the Vilna Gaon, may well be for us to understand that the Torah is full of encoded secrets -- even games -- for devout and brilliant Torah scholars to enjoy, and for us mere mortals to marvel at. More on this later, G-d willing, in my currently unfinished entry, Abraham and the Torah codes.

As far as my response to the question of the non-necessity of the word/phrase "B'reisheet," what I am about to offer is not an opinion; it's an observation.

We may, in fact, have a hint to Evolution, here, as this word/phrase, "B'reisheet," can have another meaning than the one we expect.

I suggest we note that this word/phrase can mean, "At its beginning" instead of "In the beginning."

And what can we possibly mean by "At its beginning?" We can mean "B'shoresh," or, "At its root."

If we see the word "B'Reisheet," therefore, as something that contributes to the meaning of the passage rather than something which does nothing, then we must acknowledge that the Torah may be telling us how G-d created the Heavens and the Earth, not when.

When you look at it this way, a reading suggests itself. That reading is, "G-d created everything at its root, i.e. at its beginning," i.e., not in its final form.

We say about G-d, "Mabit l'sof davar b'kadmato." "He sees the end of something in its beginning." This teaches us that G-d clearly sees the end result of all events at their inception.

G-d may well have seen the end result of the forms which would evolve from Creation but He may not have begun there. The implication of reading the first sentence of the Torah as "G-d created Heaven and Earth at their root," means G-d did not create everything in its final form but at its root, and allowed it, over billions of years, perhaps, to evolve.

Interestingly, Adam, the first human, was created last. Maybe, as suggested by a comment to this blog (I don't respond to comments anymore; I'm trying to have a life), Adam was created in his form instantaneously, and placed whole into the world, a world, I would suggest, which could still very well have evolved over time. Or, maybe there is an evolutionary link between Man and our DNA cousins, the primates, and the Torah is saying the G-d created Man out of the dust over eons, and, finally, when the physical vessel was ready, G-d breathed the life of a soul into him.

Evolutionists have yet to find that missing link between humans and other species, suggesting a quantum leap for mankind somewhere in the past, though we share a great deal of DNA with primates. Even if the universe and almost everything in it may have evolved from its root, there still is room for those who need it, to believe that Man did not -- but to me, that's really not the point.

Evolutionists may well be surprised to hear that an educated reading of the Torah may point to their belief. The Torah may have given us a hint, to those of us who are open to it, as to what really happened.

One should not take the Torah and its interpretation lightly. What interests me, here, is the possibility that it is the Torah itself, -- and not Charles Darwin or a geologist or a physicist, nor even a rabbi -- that points to the idea that the Earth evolved over time.

I am more than well aware that allowing for evolution in any form conflicts with the fundamentalist understanding of Creation but I go where the Torah leads me. In this instance, it suggested to me that I follow the rules, and take another look at the phrase "In the beginning." And, as I said in Part 1, we really cannot presume to know from the Written Torah exactly how Creation occurred. I, for one, therefore, am delighted to keep an open mind on this exhilarating and awe-inspiring topic.

The First Sin: what is the Torah teaching us?

AS with many of my blogs, I've inserted a title and a few words to hold a space until I can complete this topic.

Basically, to me, the Torah is musar, i.e. teachings for living life. It contains direct guidelines (the mitzvot, or commandments), and also teaches in many subtle ways, through its words and narratives.

The story of the first sin has, to me, a very clear lesson to be applied to living life.

It is that we must never confuse the guidelines of man with directives from
G-d. One way of saying this is, never confuse a "miderabonim" with a "midoraisa."

"Miderabonim" means "from the rabbis," i.e., the religious obligations we take upon ourselves which were ordained by ruling bodies of rabbis, like the Men of the Great Assembly, and other Sanhedrins. These rules have -- under normal circumstances -- the force of the mitzvot, commandments from the Torah.

But, wait a minute. Doesn't the Torah tell us we can neither add nor subtract from the commandments it gives us, in written and oral form? How can bodies of rabbis add to the Torah's commandments by obliging us to do things which the Torah does not prescribe?

The answer appears in the beginning of The Ethics of the Fathers ("Pirkei Avot"), a compilation of great teachings and sayings. The line of Torah knowledge is traced from Moses to Joshua to the Elders to the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly, and one of the things brought down by this illustrious line of teachers is "Asu syag la Torah," make a fence around the Torah.

What this means is that if the Torah proscribes certain acts, like eating meat and milk together, it is permissible to make a fence around this law by adding restrictions which will prevent someone from falling into sin inadvertently.

The well known "syag" or fence around the rule of not eating meat and milk together is that chicken is designated as meat by the rabbis when, according to the Torah ("midoraisa"), it is not, and, strictly speaking, can be eaten with a glass of milk.

According to the Torah, chicken is like fish, the flesh of a living creature which can be eaten with dairy meals. I don't know why this is so, but it is. My question would be, what about the quail that Hashem force-fed the Children of Israel when they wanted meat? That was meat; why not chicken?

That there is an answer to my question, I have no doubt, and, anyway, that's not the point. The point is that chicken is definitely not classified as meat.

Does this mean, then, that you can go to a kosher dairy restaurant and have a nice chicken dish smothered with melted cheese?


Why not? Because the rabbis felt that some people inevitably would see people eating chicken with dairy products, and mistakenly assume that as a living land creature, chicken is a form of meat, and that this, therefore, authorizes the eating of dairy products with all meat -- which would be a sin against the Torah.

So, in order to avoid people falling into serious error, the rabbis made a fence, keeping people away from the danger of eating meat and milk together by outlawing the eating of chicken and milk.

A fence, thus, is a protective barrier which keeps one from coming too close to danger. It is not an additional mitzvah -- commandment -- but is a regulation enacted to prevent the transgression of a Torah precept, i.e. eating milk and meat together by adding a restriction to the existing mitzvah.

Chayei Sarah: two aspects

"Chayei Sarah" or "The Life of Sarah," the title of this Parsha, paradoxically begins with her death. Thus, if we take the Torah seriously, we are to learn something -- or a number of things -- about death, from our Matriarch Sarah's story.

Let's look at our own lives, then, and the deaths we all eventually have to deal with.

When a loved one dies, one sentiment often expressed by the bereaved is the "If only."

"If only we could have caught it earlier," i.e. the disease that killed the deceased, " they'd be alive today." And, in many cases, this is absolutely true. Modern medicine can do miracles if given enough time to treat a person's ailments.

Other variations on this theme abound. "If only the ambulance had gotten there sooner." "If only the deceased had gone to the doctor when they started to feel poorly instead of waiting." "If only the doctor had been smarter in making the correct diagnosis right away, instead of (as is common on the TV medical drama 'House,' for instance) going through a process of trial and error." "If only the deceased had not picked up that infection in the hospital (known as a 'nosocomial,' i.e. caused by being in a hospital, illness). " "If only he hadn't taken that trip." "If only there hadn't been such a long delay between the doctor's diagnosis and referral, and the actual surgery itself."

I actually had a cardiologist say to me, after my late father, a"h, had suffered a massive second heart attack, "I wish I had done an angiogram after his first," something I had inquired about at the time but was told it was not routine (that was then, of course; nowadays, angiograms -- the infusion of the heart's vessels with a blue dye which clearly shows on a video screen how blood is flowing through the heart and where it is blocked, are, in fact, routine). If only, I had broken with the prevailing medical policy, and insisted ...

A key factor in the "if only," is that it is after the fact, after the patient has died, and, probably as a part of grieving, it fulfills a function of expressing our disbelief that this person has been taken from us, and not a little anger over the frustrations we experience over "what should have been," and not a little guilt over letting bad things happen. But it won't, of course, be of any Earthly help to the departed, as it might have been when they were alive.

If we look at how our Mother Sarah died, it might give us another perspective, and ease our potential frustration over the mistakes and misadventures that "shouldn't have happened," which conspired to take our loved one from us.

Sarah's death, in fact, is a textbook case of mistake and misadventure, a seemingly capricious and cruel Act of G-d which also shouldn't have happened.

So what happened?

Sarah was one hundred and twenty-seven years old but in good health. Her husband, our Patriarch Abraham, would go on to live to one hundred and seventy-five (see my comments in the blog on parsha Toldot), and, so, too, might Sarah have, had it not been for the -- apparently -- cruel concatenation of events which befell her.

Abraham, you see, had taken Yitzchak, their only son, up to Mount Moriah, to be bound up on an altar for sacrifice. Not an act of caprice, this, but a serious test of Abraham, and a direct command from G-d. More on this when I fill in the "back catalogue," of commentary on Vayera, G-d willing.

Thankfully, Sarah was kept in the dark. Abraham was not about to tell his wife what he knew would destroy her, so he told her he and their son were going away to study the laws of sacrifices.

The Midrash provides a very colorful account of what happened next but b'kitzur, in short, Sarah found out, had a heart attack, and died.

In the longer version, Satan himself, approaches Sarah, and asks her if she knows where are her husband and child. She tells him what Abraham had told her, that they have gone to study the laws of sacrifice. Satan says, "I think Yitzchak is the sacrifice."

Sarah denies this but it bothers her. She then goes to visit the last remaining giants in the land, and asks them to survey the surrounding lands to find her husband and son.

They stand up to their full height, look around, and say, "Yes, we see your husband and son on top of a mountain. Your son is bound up on an altar, and your husband is approaching him with a knife ..."

Before they could say any more, Sarah cried out, and died.

If only the giants had been asked to find Abraham and Yitzchak a minute later, they would have seen Abraham joyously taking his very much alive son down from the altar. A few moments later, they would simply have seen them both sacrificing a ram together.

What terrible timing! But for the absence of a few scant seconds to let the true story unfold, Sarah would not have died! She and Abraham and Isaac would have lived happily ever after.

What can we learn from this? We learn that G-d has a plan for us, and when time is up, it's up. Conversely, of course, if your number is not up, and you haven't done anything to place yourself unnecessarily in danger, then someone could point a gun to your head and pull the trigger, and it would misfire, likely killing your assailant.

How, though, do we account for the seemingly cruel way in which Sarah was taken?

Sarah had reached the end of her allotted time on Earth. This kind of reckoning is not available for us to know. G-d's accounts and plans are of an order beyond our understanding.

But G-d had a problem. The Angel of Death could not take Sarah because she was such a devout Tzadekess, righteous person, that her entire being was always suffused with G-dliness and focused on the Divine. According to our understanding, the Angel of Death can have no power to act over someone cleaving to the Divine -- or studying Torah.

According to tradition, King David is a case in point. Having learned what no mortal should, the intended date of his death, King David decided the knowledge was given to him for a reason and it was up to him to escape his fate. So, on the appointed day, which, by the way, was the holiday of Shavuos, he did what he had to do to defeat the Angel of Death -- he immersed himself in the constant study of Torah. The Angel of Death, however, had a card up his sleeve, and created a loud distraction outside King David's room of study. The loud noise distracted the King momentarily from his study of Torah, and the Angel of Death snatched his soul.

Thus it was with Sarah. Since her mind was always on G-d, the Angel of Death could not take her soul at the appointed time. The entire scene with the giants and the inauspicious moment they espied Abraham and Yitzchak (Isaac), served one purpose: to shock Sarah so much that for a brief moment she would lose her concentration on G-d. It worked, and the Angel of Death was able to take her soul.

Thus what seems cruel was simply a mechanism to enable her to go at her appointed time. Had this incredible scene not occurred, she might have missed her train.

That there are "more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies," to adapt a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet, is key to understanding this. "My thoughts are not your thoughts," says G-d, and we would be wise to accept that there are reasons for everything that goes on in our world, regardless of how cruel or unfortunate things may seem.

That is why the "If only" sentiments we often experience at the passing of a loved one should be informed by the understanding that G-d has a plan, and what seemed to us to be avoidable -- even stupid -- circumstances and events leading up to what we think is the untimely demise of our mother, father, son etc etc. were actually the hand of G-d at work. I have my own saying that when it's a person's time to go, G-d makes the doctors stupid, i.e. that mistakes are made in the care of a patient, diagnoses are missed, etc which conspire to bring that person to their death. Bad luck, misadventure, negligence, it's all part of the plan.

So, when we see mistakes happening in the care of our loved ones in hospital or anywhere else, should we sit back and say, "I guess it's G-d's will. It must be their time to go."

No! Of course not! When Moses was told he could not enter the Promised Land, he never ever stopped praying to G-d to reverse his decision (see the parsha "Va-techanan" in the Torah, and its commentaries). Moses beseached G-d more than 500 times, even though this was an edict from the mouth of G-d Himself. From this, our sages learned that even when the sword is at your neck, you must keep praying to G-d for salvation and deliverance. There is never an end to hope, prayer, and action.

So what does it mean? It means that we should be on the alert for the "If Only" circumstances before a person reaches death, and fight like the Dickens to reverse the situation. If someone is feeling poorly, make sure they go to the doctor in a timely manner. If someone is not getting good treatment from one doctor, get a second opinion. The time for identifying problems is when the person is still alive, not after.

After the fact, however, when the end has come, we must realize that any misadventures that led to the person's demise were G-d ordained, and we must not torture ourselves about them.

So Sarah was buried in the Ma-arat Hamachpela, The Two-Tiered Cave, and a very interesting story lies therein ... leading us to the second aspect of this blog.

The Ma-arat Hamachela is a cave in Chevron which -- apart from a secret function to be described here later --contains the earthly remains of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Yaakov and Leah, and the head only of Eisav. In other words, it's the place where our forefathers are buried, -- in Hebrew, "kever avos,--" and for that alone, it is considered one of the holiest sites of Judaism. It is purchased in this Parsha, Chayei Sarah, by Abraham so that he may bury his wife, Sarah. Some say its purchase is recorded in the Torah to provide some kind of proof that this land was legally obtained, and belongs to the Jews, i.e. the descendants of Abraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.

In an interesting linguistic correspondence, the cave's name also signifies its nature. "Machpela," with its root form, "kephel," means "dual" or "double." On the surface, this refers to the two-tiered physical structure of the cave but if we look at its function, we find another meaning.

The above list of residents -- excluding Eisav, -- are couples. Here's that interesting correspondence. Through either luck or the evolution of our languages, the Hebrew word, "kephel," seems like a both a synonym and near homonym for "couple," meaning two of something. Perhaps it is the same word, somehow managing to work its way into both languages.

So the Ma-arat Hamachpela is not only the two-tiered cave but the Cave of the Couples.

And it doesn't stop there. In fact, there is a third way in which this cave has a dual nature. In Yiddishkeit, three is a "chazaka," or a form of strong confirmation.

The two-tiers of the Cave, are not merely physical, according to Chazal, ("Chachmenu" -- our sages -- "Zichronam" -- may their memory -- "Livracha" -- be a blessing). They are spiritual.

In fact, according to our sages, the Ma-arat Hamachpela was the gateway between two worlds, ours as we know it, and "Olam Haba" -- the World To Come, i.e. the world of eternal spiritual splendour which transcends and dwarfs our world of the five senses and temporal reality.

Our sages were very clear about this world we live in as humans -- called "Olam Hazeh" -- in the Talmud. They called our life on Earth a "Prozdor," a vestibule, a promontory entrance to our main house which is the infinite and eternal reality called the "afterlife." It is in the eternal afterlife that ultimate truth pertains, and the life of the spirit reveals itself in all its glory.

Thus, the Ma-arat Hamachpela was the actual doorway connecting the vestibule of this life to the main house beyond. It's dual nature was to connect to both worlds.

And, here's the mussar, i.e., what lesson we should learn from all this in order to improve our understanding and behaviour: think twice, and it's alright (sorry, Bob).

Think about who's in the Two-Tiered Cave, and why they are there, Eisav notwithstanding. Eisav is clearly the anomaly, and the presence of his severed head inside begs for insight that I don't have except to note that by being Yitzchak's first born, he originally did have the right to be buried there.

Maybe that's the explanation: that Eisav had the birthright to be buried in the Ma-arat Hamachpela is recognized by the presence of his head there. That he relinquished the right to be there whole in body and with a spouse, is, as they say, the rest of the story.

The rest of the story is the lesson for us to learn. Who was worthy, after all, of resting in a spot which, in addition to being a cave containing mortal remains, was the portal to Paradise? One exception must be mentioned, and she is Rachel. Rachel, Yaakov's chosen wife, was a Tzadekess worthy of burial in the Ma-arat HaMachpela but G-d had other plans for her. Her tomb near Beth Lechem has served as a source of spiritual support to Jews for thousands of years through exiles and tribulations, and as an inspiration even when there are -- Baruch Hashem -- no tribulations.

But those who were buried in the Cave had something we would all do well to emulate. They themselves were similar to the Cave, i.e., they mirrored its great and unique qualities in their beings, and in the lives they led.

Of all the geographic locations in the world, the Ma-arat HaMachpela exemplifies the dual nature of the life we are born into. On the one side, is our earthly existence, on the other side is the transcendent life of the spirit in a realm far closer to the whole of reality, and G-d.

Thus, as we journey through life, will we be oblivious to the testament of the Torah, and -- chas v'shalom -- ignore the life beyond the world we can see, or will we approach the heights of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs who discovered and maintained a constant awareness of G-d in their daily lives, i.e. who understood the dual nature of reality.

I recently overheard a sad comment on this when I had occasion to be in a school which provided a "Jewish" education. I'm not faulting the quality of the education the school provided but it saddened me when I heard one young lady saying to her friend -- perhaps when she saw me wearing a kippah -- "Oh, yeah, my zaidy used to keep kosher."

Clearly the school did not impress upon its students the truth of the Torah. It didn't lead them to understand that there is indeed a dual nature to life, that life is more than we can just touch, see, hear and feel but there is a realm of truth beyond that, with G-d sitting at the top, on the eighth floor, above the Seven Heavens, and that G-d is real, and he means it when he says in the Torah that Jews should keep kosher. Apparently, this school taught that -- chas v'shalom -- G-d did not mean it. Why anyone would believe that G-d would say such a thing, and not mean it, is, of course, more than a bit of a puzzle to me.

Thus we may understand how these couples came to be worthy to be buried in the Cave of the Connection to Olam Haba, and thus, they stand as shining examples to all of us to try to emulate.

The unusual circumstances of Sarah's death, in fact, show how devoutly our blessed ancestors applied the practice of awareness of G-d while in the world.

Toledot: Rivka the Grifta & Wild West Hero

I wasn't always shomer Shabbos (a keeper of the Sabbath in accordance with halacha, Jewish law).

"Don't say that!" say the FFBs (people who are frum -- religiously observant -- From birth). "You're not allowed to embarrass yourself." And I can't decide whether they're well-meaning or just indulging in a subtle from of self-praise.

Hey. I'm not embarrassed. I am a Bal Tshuva, someone who has either come or returned to Jewish observance later in life. And, although she was not a Baalat Tshuva herself, our Matriarch Rivka (Rebecca) is my Guiding Light (the soap opera notwithstanding), and role model in this regard.

I know that the Rabbis have said one must not throw someone's past in their face, i.e. to point out that they weren't always religious or, in the case of a convert, that they were not actually of the Jewish faith. But, in my opinion, the Rabbis have gone farther than needed on this issue, indeed, too far.

While it may be wrong to demean a person by referring to their background, the sin is in the attempt to demean the person, not specifically -- and this is the key -- in alluding to their background. It's a sin to demean anyone, for any reason.  Backgrounds are just facts.

The rule should simply be against  lashon hora (evil speech behind someone's back). The principle should simply be: Never attempt to wound anyone with your tongue.

If a person is not as tall as the average, you can't point to their stature and make fun of them for being shorter than most. If a person's skin colour is different than most, you can't demean them because of it.

Yet these things are inescapably obvious. The "short" person or the person with a skin of another colour cannot hide these facts about themselves. In our sensitivity, we must not allude in any negative way to these facts but the facts announce themselves, and are known. There is no concealing them even if we do not allude to them.

The problem is, if we avoid referring to these traits at all -- even in a benign way -- we are assuming that the person might be ashamed of their "condition," and we are quite possibly creating any shame they may undeservedly feel. By treating the topic as taboo, we may thus be stigmatizing the person, and, paradoxically, contrary to our intentions, making them feel bad about themselves.

When we avoid alluding to anything about a person, we are, in fact, paradoxically, conspiring to participate in a judgement of them that they are somehow deficient, and that they don't want this purported deficiency alluded to. Also, we may be assuming they have already suffered abuse from others about this supposed deficiency, thus we fail to give society at large the benefit of the doubt. And, we are presumptuously assuming that people may have doubts about themselves because of their "situations" -- which are, actually, perfectly natural, and nothing to be ashamed about.

Why should a person be embarrassed about what they are naturally? They really shouldn't, but if a person is black, and people around him scrupulously avoid any reference at all to black people,  the person will pick up on it, and may well feel self-conscious, and singled out.  The key, in my opinion, as stated above, is not to demean.  For instance, it's OK to say "Jewish people give a lot of charity, don't they?" to a Jewish person, or even "You're Jewish."   It's not OK to say, "You're Jewish, eh?  It's all about the money, isn't it?"

Likewise, if when reading aloud a Ketuba (wedding contract) during the marriage ceremony, we skip over the part where the father of a convert is listed on the contract as "Avraham Avinu," which means "Abraham the Father of All of Us," rather than a specific Jewish father, and we just say "Avraham," as if the person was born Jewish, and their Jewish father's real name was Abraham, we are sending a message to that person, and to society, that they are deficient in their origin.

With Balei Tshuva or converts, why should we assume there's any busha (embarrassment) about where they started out? The fact that someone came to be observant in the Jewish faith from "somewhere else" can just as easily be viewed as badge of honour, rather than a liability.

What are children taught about the author of the Targum (translation into Aramaic) of the Torah whose name was Onkelos? That he was a convert, of course. And when we say it, it's with great respect for the man who actually chose to be Jewish, unlike most of us. If it was an embarrassment to point out his status as a convert, teachers wouldn't teach it, and commentaries wouldn't feature it.

The other side of the same coin, of course, is "Yichus," as made famous by the classic Rechnitzer Rejects song, "Yichus Bells, Yichus Bells, Yichus all the way ..."

"Yichus" is, basically, awe and respect for someone not because of anything they may have accomplished but because of who their parents or grandparents or great grandparents are.  Here, one's genetic heritage is deemed to be very -- too much so -- important.

So I clearly disagree with the concept that one must hide one's past, ancestral or otherwise -- or overly venerate it, --  and it is my opinion that we already know this from the Torah itself, as taught by the story of Rivka, the wife of Yitzchak (Isaac), and the mother of Jacob and Esau (Yaakov and Eisav). She's my role model.


Rivka, of all the personages in the Torah, stands tallest, in my view, in the measures of honesty, pragmatism, love of G-d, and completeness as a human being.

This, after all, is one formidable woman. This is a woman who takes no prisoners, and who is nobody's fool. This is a woman who knows what G-d wants, is a fearless Tzaddekes (righteous woman), and who is a very well-schooled -- and gifted, -- grifter, or con artist, and quite possibly, in a subtle way, the prototype for Annie Oakley (a heroine of Westerns).

Not sounding like the Rivka everyone knows and loves?

The usual "book" on Rivka, the wife of Yitzchak (Isaac), emphasises her saintly qualities. As a young girl, she not only gives Abraham's envoy, Eliezer, water but also brings water for his camels, and she shows him respect by calling him "Master." She is a good, caring, respectful young lady. Forgotten, as some would like Bal Tshuvas to do with their prior life before becoming observant, is the den of thieves on the very wrong side of the moral tracks from which she came. Of course, most Bal Tshuvas do not come from dens of thieves but they are sometimes encouraged to forget their prior lives, possibly so they will not have to bear the "shame" of not being "perfect" from the outset.

Rivka remembers where she came from, though, and she has no compunction at all about showing it. When it looks like her husband Yitzchak is getting ready to confer the Big Blessing on their firstborn but ne'er-do-well son, Eisav (Esau), she says to her good son Yaakov (Jacob), "Let us deceive your father into thinking you are Eisav [they were twins, and their father was clinically blind], and if there are bad consequences, let them fall on me." Is this just the act of an heroically selfless woman, who doesn't really know what she's doing?  Or is there something going on here that we tend to miss year after year in reading this section of the Torah?

When we read the story of Rivka, we tend to assume that it's her wisdom and goodness which enable her to perpetrate this truly Earth-shaking fraud on her husband (note how he trembles greatly when he realizes there's been a switcheroo). We never seem to wonder where she gets such a diabolically clever idea, then plans it, and executes it in dazzling detail.

She puts wool on Yaakov's arm so when Yitzchack reaches out to touch him, his arm will seem hairy, like Eisav's. This is quite possibly the origin of the phrase "to pull the wool over someone's eyes." She dresses Yaakov in Adam's Garden of Eden jacket that his brother had Eisav killed King Nimrod for and which had the beautiful scent of Eden and the great outdoors radiating from it. She also cooks venison for Yitzchak just the way he likes it, and would expect it, from Eisav.

A very elaborate deception it was. Could any good and otherwise ordinary person have done such a thing?  I think not. What Rivka did, if we look with fresh eyes, took a lot of nerve, and imagination, but most importantly, savvy. She had a talent for this kind of thing.  She was a natural.  Because of her birth family.

In my view, we adopt a "don't ask" policy about her actions because we don't want to acknowledge who she really is. It is apparently uncomfortable for us to admit that she's really her father's daughter and her brother's sister, her dad Bethuel, along with her brother Lavan being the pre-eminent con artists, thieves -- and worse -- in the region.  The Midrash says, with reference to Lavan, that he was from Padan Aram, and, therefore, called "Lavan HaArami," but this should be rendered as "Lavan HaRama-i," i.e., "Lavan, the Swindler" because that's what he was.

One thing the Torah is telling us, if we look fearlessly, and closely, at the story of Rivka, is that you can take the girl out of her family of grifters but you can't take the grifter out of the girl. We may only want to see a one-dimensional, goody-goody, saint but Rivka is a much more complete person than that.  Rivka's got game.  It's in her blood from the crime family she was born into.

The kind of monumental deception she perpetrates on her husband comes easily to Rivka because it is part of who she is. This is the leopard showing its spots, the apple not falling far from the tree, the truth coming out, both nature and nurture asserting themselves. This is real life.

Yes, Rivka was a Tzaddekes. But was she, herself, more like Yaakov, her perfect son, who sat learning all day, or like Eisav, her handsome devil of a firstborn son?

The Torah makes it perfectly clear that Rivka was more like Eisav than Yaacov, and that Eisav was like Rivka. Hard as this is to accept, the evidence is there right in the Written Torah for us all to read.

How? One of the rules for interpreting the WrittenTorah -- and this is a continuing theme in my blogs because I seem to have an eye/ear for this sort of thing -- is that when similar uniquely striking words or phrases occur, they are meant to be connected, and a relationship inferred between the people or circumstances involved. Similitude ultimately invites comparison but first alludes to the actual likeness between the parties or situations in question.

Thus we see, right from the opening psukim (sentences) of this Parsha, the tell-tale hints in the Torah shockingly connecting Rivka with Eisav. As the late, great entertainer Danny Thomas, a"h, used to say, "Holy Toledo!" Toledo, of course, being an American town named after the original town in Spain, founded, according to an old Spanish tradition, by Jewish residents around 540 BCE who named it with the dual-purpose word used for both offspring and deeds often found in the Torah -- which also happens to be the title of this Parsha -- Toldot. You won't, however, find this on the web site for the city, which propounds an alternative theory, that the word comes from "Tollitum," meaning "raised aloft"because the city was on a hill. The only problem with that is, "tollitum" is a latin word, the Romans coming around 193 BCE by which time the city was known as Toledo for nearly 400 years. Perhaps the latin word "tollitum" actually comes from the city's -- and Parsha's -- name, Toledot, to describe something raised high, as was the city.  But I digress ...

So, how do we know that Rivka is more like her roguish, charming, rough and tumble son, Eisav, than her good, quiet son, Yaacov?

The Torah tells us Rivka has been barren for the first twenty years of her marriage to Yitzchak, and he constantly prays to G-d for a child. G-d finally answers Yitzchak's prayers, and Rivka becomes pregnant. It is, however, no routine pregancy. Not knowing that she has twins who are already at war inside her womb, Rivka feels a terrible tumult inside of herself, and cannot settle down. Her pains are so great that she says, "Im kain, lama zeh anochi," and seeks out the wise men of her day for help.

There are ways to translate Rivka's statement to make it seem innocuous, i.e., "Why am I like this?" but the main opinion in the Midrash is that she's saying "If this is pregnancy, what do I need it for? I wish I had not gotten pregnant."

Here, the Midrash says, she lost her right to be the direct mother of the twelve tribes, an honour which then fell to her two nieces and daughters-in-law, Rachel and Leah, and the women in their households, although I'm at a loss to explain how,  if Rivka has been the Mother of the Tribes, how Yaakov's brothers could then be known as the Children of Israel (Yaakov's later name as conferred by Hashem). Maybe we'd all be called the Children of  Rivka?  Further analysis is needed on this drash but not in this blog.

The salient feature here, is that Rivka, as opposed to being a namby-pamby, goody-goody, helpless victim of her pain, speaks her mind, and does not sugar-coat the situation. She speaks frankly and openly about her having doubts about her pregnancy; she is human and in pain, and is not afraid to say so to the extent of doubting the value of it all even after having been without children for twenty years.

They say that, later on in the Torah, when Joseph's brothers hate him for [unintentionally but irresponsibly] telling false tales about them to their father, "Lo yachlu l'dabro l'shalom," they couldn't even bring themselves to be civil towards him. In this, they were righteous, says the Midrash, because they did not fake being civil when they could not feel like it;  they let the truth of their feelings prevail. And they were right to do so.

So Rivka is strong and forthright. Is this what we are to learn from her cri-de-coeur? Yes, but there's more. There's her connection to Eisav.

A mere ten psukim later, a very interesting linguistic coincidence occurs. In the space of these ten psukim, the boys are born -- Eisav first -- by a hair -- or two -- or three, -- and they are growing up. Yaakov, who got his name by holding on to the heel ("ekev") of his brother as they were born, has never reconciled himself to being second banana, and gets an opportunity to redress this error.

It is the time of Abraham's funeral. Mercifully, G-d has taken Abraham at the age of one hundred and seventy five, rather than at his full allotment of years, one hundred and eighty, in order to spare him the pain of seeing how his so-far seemingly exemplary grandson, Eisav, will turn out.

Eisav had been able to fool his grandfather, Abraham.  In the latter's presence, Eisav knew how to touch all the right buttons, and pull the right strings.  About Eisav there is a tradition that he indeed should have been the firstborn because he was so handsome and gifted, and that had he chosen to be righteous, he would have been a force for good in the world the likes of which are rarely, if ever, seen.

But ... he didn't. He enjoyed mayhem, to put it mildly. And true to his maternal roots, the masters of mayhem and trickery, his maternal grandfather Bethuel, and his uncle, Lavan, he conned almost all those around him into believing that he was a good boy. Except, of course, for his mother, Rivka.  No fool, she; you can't kid a kidder.

On the day of Abraham's funeral, Yaakov was cooking lentils. He did so as part of the practice of comforting the mourners, specifically, his father, Yitzchak. Lentils are round, and, like the egg given to the immediately bereaved to eat when they come home from a funeral, and, as often eaten at the Passover seder, round foods are presented to us to assure us that, though we may be grieving, things eventually will turn around, like a wheel, and that trouble, grief and suffering are only the downside of life which has an eventual upswing automatically built into it. In our time of grief, we take a little comfort, and have faith that much of the pain will subside, that there is hope, and a light at the end of the tunnel -- unless, as is usually the case with me, after I've entered deeply into a one-track tunnel, the light at the end turns out to be that of a huge train approaching at breakneck speed ...

Into this scene of Yaakov cooking lentils, straggles Eisav, all tired out from a day -- like most others --of creating mayhem and mischief, even as others, unlike him, have paused to mourn the passing of a Prince of G-d, his grandfather, Abraham.  Eisav sees what's cooking, and he cries out to Yaakov, "Give me some of that red, red stuff!" This is how his dominion came to be known as "Edom," a variation on the word he used, "adom," which means "red".

Yaakov sees an opportunity, and says to Eisav, "Sell me your birthright" as a condition for him doling out any of the lentil pottage.

At this moment in the story, it would be prudent to point out that Yaakov's motives were not self-serving. Although there are other traditions which vary from this [two Jews, ten opinions], we'll go with this one: Yaakov knew from his studying of G-d's ways that the firstborn of Yitzchak would be the bearer of the Torah, and the "ritual director" of G-d's service. He, like his mother Rivka, knew only too well Eisav's penchant for evil, and in seeking to secure the birthright, Yaakov was trying to protect the holiness of the Torah and G-d's services from the defilement to which Eisav and his descendants would surely have subjected them.

This is borne out by Eisav's response. Did Eisav say, "Are you kidding, dear brother?  Do you think I am going to give up the right to represent the holy Torah and G-d's services for a mess of lentil stew?  Surely, you jest, my junior by those few crucial, and thank G-d, divinely ordained seconds! I'll make myself an egg salad sandwich, instead. Nice try, but no sale, Yankele!"

Ah, but for Eisav, this was not his response. His response was, "Hine anochi holech lamut, v'lama zeh li hab'chora,"i.e., "Here I am, marching towards death; for what do I need the birthright of the firstborn?"

On the surface level, Eisav has focused on his physical pain, his hunger and exhaustion, and incredibly, has valued short-term relief of his temporary predicament over the long-term implications of the right of primogeniture. Alternatively, he knew he was unfit to conduct the rituals of service to G-d, and would have died from performing them improperly, or, as a hunter, he knew the risks of the wild might cut his life short, as would, I presume, his penchant for warfare.  In other words, he didn't think he was a good fit for it, anyway.

But there is something truly crucial in the way he said it.

When Eisav says, "Lama zeh li b'chorah," or "What do I need the birthright for?" it unquestionably echoes the words spoken by his mother a few sentences earlier regarding her painful pregnancy with him and Yaakov, "Lama zeh anochi?" Both are saying, "What do I need this for?"

Coincidence?  Not in the Torah.  In a few quick strokes, the Torah establishes a connection and similarity between the personalities, and outlooks, of mother Rivka, and her son Eisav. They think alike. They speak alike. They are alike.

Indeed, in these same psukim, the Torah tells us that Eisav, rather than his brother Yaakov, is  their father Yitzchak's favourite.  And the Torah tells us why: "ki tzayid b'pheev," because Eisav was a hunter and "prey was in his mouth." Eisav is described as "Ish yodaya tzayid, ish sadeh," a man who knows how to hunt, a man of the fields. We must remember that Yitzchak was a lover of the outdoors. When he met his wife to be, he was in a field, praying, communing with G-d in the great temple of Nature. There, the Torah says that Yitzchak went out "lasuach ba'sadeh," to pray in the fields. The echo of the word, "sadeh," "fields," in Eisav being called an "ish sadeh" by the Torah, shows the affinity between the him and his father.

The sages, however, tell us there is a subtle additional meaning to the passuk (sentence) in the Torah describing why Yitzchak liked Eisav. The phrase that Yitchak liked Eisav "ki tzayid b'pheev," is interpreted by commentators to mean not that Eisav had the prey of the hunt with him but that his father Yitzchak was the prey, i.e., that Yitchak had fallen prey, like his father, Abraham, before him, to Eisav's gifted deceptions in portraying himself as a model son. In other words, Eisav was such a calculated con artist that he knew exactly what ministrations to perform for his father, and ended up with his Yitzchak wrapped around his little finger.

Are we seeing more similiarities now between Eisav and his Mom? Neither is afraid to speak their mind, both are willing to question whether something important they have is actually worth the pain, both are excellent deceivers, and clearly, both are eminently capable of carrying out their deceptions, and both have Yitzchak wrapped around their respective little fingers.

Yaakov, though equally intelligent -- and strong -- didn't really inherit the guile from his mother's side of the family. With his sincere desire for learning, and sitting indoors in tents,  he may have  seemed a little distant from his father, who loved the outdoors, like Eisav.

And now that we see how much more of Rivka's personality was mirrored by Eisav, is it any wonder that Yitzchak preferred Eisav to Yaakov?  Eisav was a man after Yitzchak's heart regarding the outdoors but with his Torah-noted similarity in personality, aptitude, and temperament to Rivka, Eisav was a shoo-in. He not only reminded Yitzchak of himself, he reminded him of Rivka! Eisav had the vibe that reminded Yitchak of his beloved wife. Conversely, it becomes obvious, now, that the reason Rivka loved Yaakov was because, being without guile, he reminded her of, who else, but her husband, Yitzchak, who was so without guile his wife managed to trick him not once, but twice. We may infer, therefore, that Rivka, like Eisav, also had Yitzchak wrapped around her little finger, and, in fact, we see more proof of this with her second con at the end of the Parsha.

After helping her son Yaakov deceive her husband Yitzchak into giving him the Big Blessing, utilizing all her grifting skills, including cooking Yitzchak a meal just the way Eisav would have -- Rivka hears that Eisav will now try to kill Yaakov.

She needs Yaakov to "get out of Dodge" but she doesn't want him to just run away. She wants him to go away with her husband's blessing. So, being the ever resourceful grifter she is, she sets up another con.

Rivka goes to Yitzchak with a made-up story that she can't stand the local girls as potential wives for Yaakov. "Katzti b'chayai mipnei b'not Chait," she lies barefacedly, "I am exasperated
by the daughters of Chait." And then, she uses the trademark phrase, "If Yaakov takes one of them as a wife," "lama li chayim?," "what do I need my life for?"

Rivka is always saying this. She earlier tells her son, Yaakov, that if he doesn't leave, he and Eisav will probably kill each other, and "lama," why, should she lose them both on the same day?

This constantly asking the semi-rhetorical question "lama," or "what good is this?" shows that Rivka is a thinking person who consciously evaluates all the situations she finds herself in. The frank, pragmatic "what's in it for me," attitude is surely from her family background, her father and brother always looking to score in any given situation.

Her final con in Parsha Toldot succeeds, as so it should, coming from such a talented deceiver as Rivka. Yitzchak, not suspecting any subterfuge, swallows it hook, line, and sinker, and orders Yaakov to get out of town, and to find a bride (oy vey, but it worked out OK) by Lavan's family. And, naturally, he deems it proper to give Yaakov yet another blessing, as he sends him on his way. So Rivka has saved her sons from killing each other, and has secured an additional blessing for her favourite, designated heir to the Torah by, once again, conning her husband.

Now that we've established who Rivka really is, what can we learn from it all?

The moral of this story, as I see it, is: don't deny your background. Wherever G-d plants us has a purpose, and we should be careful not to try to forget it, to put it behind us, or to put on airs, even as we are trying to better ourselves. Rivka never forgot where she came from, and she did not try to change herself; she remained who she was. In fact, if Rivka had cut herself off from her instincts, and early upbringing, and tried to deny or forget them, she would have been in conflict with herself to the extent that she may not have had the nerve -- the confidence -- to bring about the important changes that she did.

So, interestingly, G-d needed Rivka to be the sainted fraud artist that she was. Likely, it was Hashgacha Proteus, Divine Providence. And this is the lesson for us. If you come from a family of thieves, do not reject your background, and don't try to deny it. Retain what you learned, and use it -- but, as Rivka did, for a G-dly purpose.

This, of course, is the difference between Rivka, and her son Eisav, notwithstanding their kinship.  As demonstrated by her solicitousness to Eliezer as a young girl, still at home, Rivka shows that there is a higher nature than one's genetic nature which can also supersede the environmental nurturing a person experiences. Her selflessness belies her upbringing. Yet, the nature/nurture a person receives as a child does inform their being.  In tricking her husband twice, Rivka performed a form of spiritual alchemy.  She used the guile she inherited, and learned at home, "leshaym shamayim," for a G-dly, not a selfish, purpose. But she never scorned the tools that G-d, and her family, had given her.

And, for those who like movies, since Rivka's talents involved breaking the laws of proper behaviour, she qualifies as a Wild West Hero, as found in western movies (see more below), where the Hero fulfills our desire to go beyond the confines of civilized behaviour by using outlaw skills (usually gunfire) to protect society.  She was like Annie Oakley, saving the townspeople who had made guns in their town illegal, from the outlaws, who used guns anyway.  On the side of Right, Annie got her guns, even they were illegal, and used them for Good, and Saved the Town.

Thus should we all honour our backgrounds, genetic and environmental, and never be ashamed of, or try to deny, them.  We should embrace them, for they are what G-d gave us in order to do our work in this world.  It is up to us to make sure that the work we do, is for the good.  Should anyone try to put us down for any reason relating to our past or even our present, all we have to say is, "That's who I am;  let's see what I can do."

Or lama --why, indeed,-- are we here?

For those of you who are not afraid of a little "university learning," here's a broader exposition of the concept of the Hero.

I was going to end this commentary with the above line when a little birdie told me to remember my own background -- that of studying film, among other things. Upon doing so, I realized that Rivka may be the the first example of the heroic archetype prevalent in the genre of movies called Westerns, i.e., Horse Operas, Oaters, etc which I would say has morphed into the good old James Bond spy stories as well as many crime and adventure thrillers, even violence genres like the Terminator.

Sociologists who have studied film have come up with a formula for understanding those Wild West action stories, and the hero type seems to fit Rivka to a T. She may, in fact, be the Annie Oakley of the Torah. Or, rather, Annie Oakley might be the Rivka of the Western.

Here's how the formula works. The decent, law-abiding citizens of the frontier town have decided that, if they're going to be civilized, they have to give up carrying guns in the town.
Only the Sheriff, and his Deputies, can still pack heat.

Of course, the Outlaws, by definition, don't give a hoot for the law, and they come in and menace all the nice townfolk by riding in and shooting things up, robbing banks, killing people etc.

Now, hear this: the Sheriff and his Deputies -- unless they are the Heroes of the story -- can't handle the Outlaws because the latter are too wild and resourceful to be caught easily. And even if they were caught, their buddies can break them out of jail. The Law, then, can't completely control the Outlaws, unless, as I've noted, the representatives of the Law are the Heroes.

According to the sociologists, these groups of people represent major parts of the inner psyche of each and every one of us in society. The nice townfolk represent the limitations we put on ourselves in order to live peacably in society, i.e. by being law-abiding, by eschewing violence, and by having designated representatives of the Law protecting us. Gone from the civilized -- read, tamed -- members of society is all the wildness and abandon we supposedly still have within ourselves but which we have repressed in order to be civilized. And so, all of the urges and drives we have suppressed in order to live in society show up in the Western as -- who else? -- the Outlaws.

The Outlaws -- as their name suggests -- live beyond the restrictions of the law. They represent our desire to be free of the restrictions we place upon ourselves. They represent a primal urge to be wild and carefree. But of course, we dare not be that way, because we know we do not want to indiscriminately kill other people or create chaos in our world.

Enter the Hero, who saves the day. The Hero -- think James Bond in the spy version of the Western formula -- represents the Law -- and then some. The unique characteristic of the Hero is that he has all of the skills of mayhem that the Outlaws have but uses them in the service of the Law. Thus, James Bond upholds his country but he also has what is clearly an Outlaw function -- the -- licensed, in his case, -- willingness and ability to kill, as well as the finely honed outlaw skills he needs to carry out his mission.

In the Hero we see a fusion of our desire to be free of restrictions and yet a desire to remain civilized. The Hero fulfills that ideal for us, and we identify with them. The Hero gets to shoot guns in a non-packing society, and is exempted from keeping the laws of society, sometimes, as long as nobody innocent gets hurt.

So, Rivka was the first Wild West Hero. She was a Tzaddekes, a saintly woman who clearly upheld G-d's ways but like the Heroic character in the Western formula, she was allowed the licence to use Outlaw tactics which she had acquired through her birth and early upbringing, in order to save society, our society, the Children of Israel.

Aisav the deceiver is defeated by his own mother's equally expert deception. Good triumphs over Evil, giving it a taste of its own medicine, and we, by secretly identifying with Rivka's bold subterfuge, get a taste of being heroes, ourselves. Baruch Hashem, what a Torah G-d gave us! Maybe it should be learned while we munch on popcorn and gulp down large sized drinks!