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High Five

parshat beshalach, exodus 13 – 17

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on clubhouse on Thursday February 2,2023. The Torah declares that the Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt “Hamushim” חֲמֻשִׁ֛ים , a word related to the number five. According to many commentaries this word implies that only some of the Israelites left Egypt and that they were armed and ready to fight. As divisions begin to surface within the ranks of the Israelites, we raise our hand to identify and call out the birth of Jewish sectarianism.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Beshalach. The Torah declares that the Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt “Hamushim” חֲמֻשִׁ֛ים , a word related to Hamesh, the number five. According to many commentaries this word implies that only some of the Israelites left Egypt … armed and ready to fight. This is the first time that distinctions are made between one set of Jews and another. So, as divisions begin to surface within the ranks of the Israelites, we raise our hand to identify and call out the birth of Jewish sectarianism. So join us for High Five.


Well, welcome to the Madlik podcast. Rabbi Adam, welcome back. from Dubai. As I said in the introduction, we’re going to focus on really one word that many of the commentators have a challenge with. And it has to do with when the Jews came out of Egypt, it’s in the first two verses of our Parsha. So in Exodus 13: 17, it says, Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines. Although it was nearer, for God said, the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt. So God led the people round about by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed, went out of the land of Egypt. So this went up armed out of the land of Egypt, is the crux of our question tonight, because the Hebrew is וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם  And if you look at your standard in translation, for instance, the JPS puts a little asterik and it says the meaning of the Hebrew ḥamushim  is uncertain. Everett Fox in his translation says, armed Heb. (hamush) unclear.  he says, there are some that even say the possibility of groups of five or 50. So it’s a word that I think all of us have heard before, if you’ve even seen a hamsa, which is that iconic hand, you know that Hamesh means five. And here, we have just popped into the verse, a word coming from that show us from that route, and everybody is scratching their head. And of course, the flip side of scratching your head, if you’re a rabbi is coming up with an interpretation. So we will be exploring some of those interpretations. And seeing where they do lead us. Rashi, who is always our go-to guy, he combines the two verses, and we’re gonna see a lot of that, obviously, when you study pesukim, it should be in context. So, he says, because God led them by a circuitous route through the wilderness, he brought it about that they went up from Egypt, well provided. So there’s a certain logic and at one level Hamushim, which comes from the word five as in five fingers, you can make the case it means armed, which is kind of nice. And the English, the word armed is related to the word hand, it’s provided for. And he also goes on to say, this verse is written only with the view of making the ear understand in parentheses (preparing you for later statement that you should not wonder with regard to the war of Amalek.) So, at the end of our Parsha, we have a walk with Amelek, how do you fight a war without arms? And finally, he says that the word Hamushim has been used before he quotes Joshua. And he says, if you recall, there were two and a half tribes who decided to stay on the other side of the Jordan. And it says when you pass over the Jordan, you should do so Hamushim – armed so rabbis, what is your sense of Hamushim? It’s not actually a word that you can kind of ignore. I mean, it’s right in the in the pasuk. How rare is it that we get a word that really baffles pretty much everybody?

Adam Mintz  04:54

Yeah, I mean, let’s start from the beginning. The fact that the word Hamushim is related to the word Hamesh is what’s most interesting about the word? Because the question is, what is the what is the idea of being prepared for battle have to do with the word Hamesh? Right? They couldn’t use any word. Why is the word Hamushim that always interested me?

Geoffrey Stern  05:19

I mean, I think the English is kind of helpful here, because the word armed, literally comes from something that you bear in your hand. I mean, I did a Google search.

Adam Mintz  05:32

So, you know, that’s interesting, if that’s true, meaning that’s an English phrase. The question is whether the Chumash has the same use of the word arm, that we say that in English, but we don’t say that in Hebrew, I don’t think. Right?

Geoffrey Stern  05:49

Yeah, yeah. And that’s why you get variations like, wow, she kind of, he talks about arm but he also talks about being provided for, you know, you look up in Google, for instance, handshaking. And in Wikipedia, it says people would shake hands to make sure the other person wasn’t armed. It is kind of natural, when you get arrested when you hold up your hands, to show that you’re unarmed. So I think it’s more than just linguistic. I really do think that in a world where people are fearful for their lives the way most animals are, their ears perk up, they want to know if someone is a friend or a foe…. You look at the hand. So, I mean, it’s it is kind of interesting. It doesn’t answer all the questions, but it is fascinating that the rabbi’s at least some of them jump to that kind of a conclusion.

Adam Mintz  06:45

Yeah, it is interesting. I agree with you. That is interesting. I don’t know what to make of it. But that’s interesting.

Geoffrey Stern  06:51

So, I started by talking about this is the beginning of divisions within the Jewish people. And so Rashi says, and there was another explanation. He gets away for a second from being armed. And he says commotion is only one out of five went forth from Egypt, four parts of the people died during the three days of darkness, because they were unworthy of being delivered. So here’s what I was referring to. And of course, the most interesting part here is if you look at this word, which defies a straightforward translation, and it does become a Rorschach test What pushed the rabbi’s to read into it, something that would say that not all Jews merited or deserved or chose to leave the land, all of a sudden, for the first time, the Birth of a Nation, five seconds into the birth of the nation, we already have divisions within that nation being imposed upon them.

Adam Mintz  08:01

Yeah, that mean? Well, first of all, you know, the idea that four out of five didn’t make it out. That’s a wonderful kind of Midrash. Because that’s clearly not what it means. But that the Torah is trying to hint to us something, I think, is really fantastic.

Geoffrey Stern  08:22

Well, you know, the, we’ve gotten a few different explanations so far, you know, why not throw a bunch out there. And then we can start maybe to think in terms of, on the one hand, what the verse means, which I think probably is above our pay-scale, seeing as no one has come up with a complete solution. But the other interesting part about it is, how do people react to it? How do rabbis react to it? So the first interesting thing that you pointed out, was, it’s one thing to say, as I did that, four fifths stayed in Egypt, why are we creating these divisions? The next thing is, we’re starting to see this trend that we get in the Haggadah, also, where you multiply numbers, because, you know, we all know that the Jews left Egypt, traditionally, there were 600,000 men, so you figure another 600,000 women, and then you figure it children. And so you know, you think it’s maybe a million two, a million four. But if this is the case, think of what those numbers could possibly be. And there are other commentaries like the Rabenu Bachaiya, who even goes further and he says it was one in 50. It was one in 500. It is this tendency, I think, to exaggerate, which is is kind of interesting, especially because is the miracle of a million two is a pretty big miracle by itself.

Adam Mintz  10:07

Yes, That is that is absolutely true. I mean, let’s go back to the idea that four out of five didn’t make it. I mean, so you say we’re exaggerating, but the exaggeration says something, it really tells you that the Jews were not worthy,

Geoffrey Stern  10:24

or that some Jews were not worthy.

Adam Mintz  10:26

But no, but a majority, that’s 80% weren’t worthy.

Geoffrey Stern  10:32

That is a big number.

Adam Mintz  10:34

That’s a big number. I just want to point out. That’s a huge number.

Geoffrey Stern  10:39

And so from that perspective, I guess you could take it in a different direction. And you can say that what it’s trying to show is, don’t ever take this Exodus for granted. Yeah, a bunch of slaves, few plagues got out of Egypt, started a nation. Don’t ever think that this wasn’t the most amazing story that has occurred in history. Don’t ever think how daunting this was for the participants; you’re focusing on the four fifths that didn’t leave. The commentaries are kind of interesting. When they focus even on the 1/5 that did leave. They make this connection between God taking them in a circuitous path and giving them arms and almost in a sense saying, but even though I gave them the arms. It still didn’t happen. It still didn’t work. The Seforno says they did not have the courage to face the Egyptians in combat, in spite of their being armed. There’s another Chiba Yeterah says נפל לבם Their heart felt. So, it’s almost saying that God did everything in his power to make this happen. But it was an amazingly large challenge. And I think from that perspective, that kind of makes me more in awe than any raw numbers.

Adam Mintz  12:12

Yeah, o what you’re saying is that the raw numbers, even 80% could ultimately be misleading.

Geoffrey Stern  12:23

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, because you focus on the ones that were left behind, and you forget the ones that left how daunting it was, and how, you know, as much preparation as there was to take a people from slaves and a slave mentality. And to give them the ability to stand on their own two feet and defend themselves is something that we should never, you know, kind of take for granted. So that’s kind of one of the stories that one of the lessons that I take from this. The other interesting thing is, and I mentioned that we were starting to see now different groups. Now we have a group that didn’t leave, and a group that left at the end of last week’s Parsha, we had the mixed multitude, they a lot of love. So now we have not only people that left, and they were armed, and they believed or at least they were closer to believing than anywhere else. But we also have this mixed multitude. And this comes up even later, there’s another word for them. They’re called the Riff Raff in numbers, the soft stuff Eek, there are, all of a sudden, we see this is not the plagues were kind of easy. You had darkness, it was dark. For the Egyptians, it was light for the Jews. But now as we get out there, we’re starting to see different types of Jews, quasi-Jews, maybe Jews. It’s very early in the story. And all of a sudden, this is starting to happen to us. And I think that’s kind of fascinating. We don’t even get a honeymoon.

Adam Mintz  14:09

Yeah, that that. Now, that is an interesting point. The fact that we don’t get a honeymoon means it just seems to go from one to the next. Right. The question is why we don’t get a honeymoon. Why didn’t God just let everybody out? What Why was there this, this decision to only let out say 20% of the people means was it a punishment? What was it about?

Geoffrey Stern  14:35

So fascinatingly, there are different opinions about what went on? One of them…., it’s up pseudo Philo says “the children of Israel were split in their opinions according to three strategies. For the tribes of Reuben, Issachar, Zebulun and Simeon said: “Come let us cast ourselves into the sea. For it is better for us to die in the water than to be killed by our enemies”. The tribes of Gad, Asher, Dan and Naftali said: “No, but let us go back with them, and if they are willing to spare our lives, we will serve them”. But the tribes of Levi, Judah, Joseph and Benjamin said: “Not so, but let us take up our weapons and fight with them, and God will be with us! So, this becomes kind of fascinating because we and I am right there…. we always assumed when forfeits left behind, that they were left behind by, by God’s choice by Moses, his choice they were rejected. But what this interestingly, in given the whole arc of Jewish history suggests that maybe they didn’t want to leave, you cannot help but think back to Europe, in the 30s, when some Jews were leaving for Israel, or Palestine, and others were did not want to go. So so now we have differences of opinion as to what the right course was. And we’re starting to see opinions that in fact, there is one in our source notes, which I should post and I’ll put them up in a second. There’s an amazing article about Who with a Mixed Multitudes. And it’s by a professor called Professor Bar. And he makes the case that even some of those who are saying that the Hamushim means groups of 50. He makes the argument that the Erev Rav and these groups of 50 were paid mercenaries, were whether they were paid mercenaries, or they weren’t fighters is irrelevant in my mind. But what you’re seeing is there were those who took charge those who took the impetus. They even use the words that were later used in Yehoshua’s time, which I think is a terrible translation. They translate Halutzim as shock troops. But they talk about these armed Hamushim also referred to as Halutzim, we’re the ones who decided to leave Egypt. And there were those who did not have enough self-confidence, or as we would see later, will dream about the fleshpots of Egypt and always want to go back Datan and Avirom  there were these different groups. And according to this opinion, the Hamushim were a certain type of Jew who led the charge. Not all of them necessarily were armed. It starts to become kind of fascinating.

Adam Mintz  17:57

That is fascinating. Yeah, that is fascinating So the question is, … based on what the different explanations of  Hamushim are. If Hamushim means armed, so the question is who exactly was armed? Right? And where did the Jews get these arms from? וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם Where did you get the arms from?

Geoffrey Stern  18:26

According to all of those who say that Israelites were left in Egypt, they were killed during the plague of darkness. That is the tradition. And of course, we also have a tradition, that during the plague of darkness, it was pitch black for the Egyptians, but the Jews could see. And there are various traditions that say that the Jews, the Israelites, would go into the houses of the Egyptians and stake out weapons; stakeout property that they would later ask for as they left when they were provisioned. We’ve talked about that before.

Adam Mintz  19:10


Geoffrey Stern  19:10

But the interesting thing to me is that in Exodus 10, when it talks about the plague of darkness, it says לא ראו איש את אחיו . And that one could not see one’s fellow. But if you take that metaphorically, again, if if this is when the allegory the myth, the concept of some Jews were left behind comes up in the plague of darkness. It’s this division started to occur when one Israelite could not see the other. The Division started to occur even within the land of Egypt. So, it’s almost a recognition of the text that this all began. And I guess, you know, I can’t say this hasn’t occurred before. When Moses came the day after he killed the slave master, the two Jews, said to him, what are you going to do? You’re going to kill us too. But so there always were divisions, there were divisions in every people and God for sure they have divisions within the Jewish people. But this is on a much larger scale.

Adam Mintz  20:27

Yes, I think that’s right. I mean, I think you know, and that’s what you talked about the numbers. It makes a difference how many Jews left Egypt in this discussion? What did it look like? I don’t even know what 2 million people leaving Egypt look like. Right? What did that look like?

Geoffrey Stern  20:46

So so we get to, I believe I’m on safe ground to say that the reason why Hamesh was related, and maybe you don’t agree with me on this, but the reason why her Mace was related to arms was for the same reason that the English word for armaments comes from the word arm. This is where power is exerted. And I think that if you start then to look at the story of the Exodus, and look at how Yad is used as a metaphor, it starts also to make sense, I was talking to you before about how I was preparing with my grandson who’s going to be Bar Mitzvah in a few months. And we were discussing tephilin and of course, fill in his first referenced as an וְהָיָה֩ לְךָ֨ לְא֜וֹת עַל־יָדְךָ֗ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן֙ בֵּ֣ין עֵינֶ֔יךָ לְמַ֗עַן תִּהְיֶ֛ה תּוֹרַ֥ת ה בְּפִ֑יךָ כִּ֚י בְּיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה הוֹצִֽאֲךָ֥ ה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם , a sign on your arm, and it references that outstretched arm. [also וַיְחַזֵּ֣ק ה’ אֶת־לֵ֤ב פַּרְעֹה֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּרְדֹּ֕ף אַחֲרֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֹצְאִ֖ים בְּיָ֥ד רָמָֽה׃ ה’ stiffened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he gave chase to the Israelites. As the Israelites were departing defiantly, where yad rmah is according to Ibn Ezra: They didn’t leave the impression of fleeing but rather had all the weapons of war [and so did not go out like fugitives.] ]And we have to note that the Hebrew word Yad, we always talk in terms of a hand, but I think if you look at the text of the Bible, Yad can just as easily mean arm, as it can mean hand. So now you look at all of the verses that we’re very well acquainted with, about God out stretching his arm, about the power of the hand of God. And it puts that the where it talks about whether it’s כִּֽי־יָד֙ עַל־כֵּ֣ס יָ֔הּ , whether it is the בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה the out stretched arm, it is a metaphor for power, for changing, for progress. You know, when it talks about the plagues, in so many of the cases, it talks about raising up the hand. So I think that this is a major kind of part of this story. And it makes us think differently about you know, what is going on here, and what is the power of this Hamsa of this hand?

Adam Mintz  20:47

Good. You know what, I’m willing to go with you? I don’t know that we could prove it necessarily. But I’m willing to go with you that, that that what we’re talking about here is that we’re talking about here is some something based on the fact that armaments are related to the hands. I’m good with that. Let’s run with that.

Geoffrey Stern  23:30

Great. So if we look back in the story, and we look all the way back to Genesis 41, where Joseph is advising the king, it says, Joseph says to the king, and let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land and organize the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And there it says let him make וְחִמֵּשׁ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם . So here, Rashi says that they shall prepare, and he says similar to Exodus 13: 18 and be prepared for war. So now this is another nuance. We talked about provisioning, preparing the Jews that are going to be taken on a circuitous mission. Maybe it takes a little bit away from the military nature of this, but certainly it focuses as Hamesh as something that is preparing somebody for something. It’s interesting that the word comes up and it’s not a word that falls off your tongue easily. Even when you look at that verse. You need a Rossi to explain what’s going on.

Adam Mintz  24:51

Yeah, I think that’s right. The simple explanation of the verse doesn’t really mean anything. All right. I mean, it needs an explanation. I think that’s a very smart point. We’re running to different kinds of explanations. What is the simple explanation is and I don’t know what the simple explanation means.

Geoffrey Stern  25:16

No, and, and we probably will not know. But one thing that did come to my mind is that it’s strange that while the commentaries do talk about Hamesh as being prepared, and being armed, they don’t talk so much about being armed by God, which is kind of interesting. And if I had to say, one small, little Hidush, one small, little innovation in Genesis, where it talks about what we said a second ago, that you should organize the land of Egypt, it uses Hamesh in Genesis 47, it says, “And Joseph made it into a land law in Egypt, which is still valid, that a fifth should be Pharaoh’s; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’s.  So here, Hamesh, it belongs to Pharaoh.” And maybe and this is my small innovation at Pharaoh was the king Pharaoh was the god of Egypt. And so it’s almost as though the fifth the Hamesh the Yad, the mover, the shaker, that’s what belongs to God. And so it seems to me it’s a little strange that the rabbi is don’t insert God into this Hamesh when the Yad of God is all over, but instead use it to look for the differences between some Jews and another that kind of struck me, especially if my if my explanation has any soil to it at all.

Adam Mintz  27:05

That’s good. So the יד חזקה  is is actually the opposite of Hamushim, even though it both means the same thing. That’s your question really?

Geoffrey Stern  27:19

Well, I think that the Hamushim means to be prepared and protected in a very profound way. And if I had to argue from Jewish superstition, Jewish ritual objects, from Jewish tradition, if you think of that Hamsa, which, you know, people are not sure whether it come it came from Islam, or predated Islam, and it came from Judaism, in our superstitious tradition in Yemen, it’s the Yad of Miriam. But the idea is, I’ve seen pictures of hands, almost I wouldn’t say they were put in blood, but they are put on the wall as a sign of protection. They just recently discovered a hand impregnated into the wall around Jerusalem. This idea of God protecting us with his hand, to me seems to be where the Jewish people might have taken this concept of God’s hand. And from that perspective, it gives a new insight into what God gave these people, they still didn’t stand up to the task. But they were appointed by God, they were armed by God, they were prepared by God. That certainly is one way to look at it.

Adam Mintz  28:47

I have a question to ask you.

Geoffrey Stern  28:48


Adam Mintz  28:49

When did they use these armaments that they were prepared with? There’s a war with a Amalek at the end of our parsha, there’s a war with Amalek, but it’s a miraculous war. Moshe raises his hands and they win Moshe lowers his hands, and they lose.

Geoffrey Stern  29:06

So the Rashi on Exodus 13: 18, which I cut short, says that the reason why they have arms is that you should not wonder with regard to the war with Amalek. And then he continues, and the war with Sihon and Og and Midian where they obtained weapons, since they smote them with the sword.

Adam Mintz  29:22

So good. So that’s what I’m saying. It’s interesting that the pasuk here says that they’re armed. But basically, they only use the arms 40 years later.

Geoffrey Stern  29:35

And I guess once you have your first battle, there’s always an explanation of how you got your arms…  you captured them from the enemy.

Adam Mintz  29:43

But I’m saying isn’t that interesting means that they’re actually preparing to enter the land of Israel. Now before the sin of the spies. They thought they were entering the Land of Israel immediately. So therefore, they needed the arms because they had to fight these battles. And the answer is they didn’t fight them for 40 years.

Geoffrey Stern  30:03

Yep. So, yep, yep. So so the question is, you know, is is, is the, the answer worse than the question? You know, they’re clearly looking at this word and trying to figure out, you know what it means. But in the Haggadah, we have so many elements that we’ve kind of touched on today, we have this element of exaggerating, of multiplying the numbers, but to me, the most challenging one is the wicked son, because it’s the wicked son that now takes on a whole new meaning. When they say, you said, “you” had you been there, you would not have been worthy to ever be redeemed. Now we have a tradition of four fifths of the people (did not get redeemed).. But let’s forget about numbers; about a portion of the people decided or were forced not to be redeemed. And I would argue what makes this fascinating, especially for recent history, in terms of the establishment of the State of Israel, where you almost flipped the coin, where it was the God-fearing who, for many reasons, said, We are going to wait to be saved, we will stay in where we are. And it was the Halutzim, and it’s amazing that it uses the same word as these forward troops, who were the humashim, who went out and had the confidence to create a new land, which just goes to show that, you know, everybody has a lesson to take away from the portion and everybody should be struggling and bothered by the questions that are raised as we read the weekly portion, and this week is no exception.

Adam Mintz  32:01

I think that’s great. We I mean, we looked at a word you know, sometimes we look at an idea today, we looked at the word, it’s no question. It’s the best word in the parsha. It’s my favorite word in the parsha. It’s one of my favorite words in the Chumash. Just because I love that Rashi. So, we really tried to get to the bottom of it. And whether we did or we didn’t, we at least had an interesting conversation, something to think about the Shabbat. So wishing everybody a Shabbat Shalom, enjoy, and we look forward to seeing you next week.

Geoffrey Stern  32:26

Shabbat shalom. Great to have you back high five to you from one street on the Upper West Side to another and look forward to next week. Well, thank you for listening. And for all of you who listen to this as a podcast tonight, we have an extended version, because as you know, this is recorded on clubhouse live. And we have two amazing Hasidic stories from my buddy Yochanan, who is the Rosh Kollel of clubhouse. And we also have some interesting comments from my buddy Lauren. So you are welcome to leave now. You still get all of Madlik points, and all of the benefits that come with those Madlik points. But if you want to get a sense of what happens on clubhouse, stay tuned. Yochanan how are you today?

Yochanan Lowen  33:21

Hey, hey, Rob, is it’s a pleasure to be here. And Rabbi Adam said that Hamushim is his most favorite word in the Humash. Did I hear correctly?

Adam Mintz  33:31

Yeah, I like that word.

Yochanan Lowen  33:32

But Hi, how is it possible to be differently? If Hamushim is actually the same word as Humash. So obviously, this would be your most favorite word in the Humash.

Adam Mintz  33:45

That’s fantastic. Of course, they’re related words.

Yochanan Lowen  33:48

Exactly. It’s actually the same term, it’s the same route. It’s the same, you know, it’s the same word, it’s the difference in the conjugation, whatever what you call it in English.

Geoffrey Stern  34:00

And I will say that in my research of the Hamsah, the this iconic hand that we see some of the Sephardic customs are is that it represents the Hamesh Humsheh Torah the five books of the Torah. And the same goes for וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה, which is the Heh, in the וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה, is there Heh, of the Five Books of Moses, which will save us. So it really I think Yochanan you’re just adding another aspect to how this tree these traditions that we’ve talked about have kind of been recycled and grown and ruminate one with the other. Humash is a perfect, perfect example.

Adam Mintz  34:50

Yeah, that’s great. Thank you very much. Appreciate it. Shabbat shalom, everybody. Enjoy.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

High Five | Sefaria

Parshat Beshalach – The Torah declares that the Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt “Hamushim” חֲמֻשִׁ֛ים , a word related to the number five. According to many commentaries this word implies that only some of the Israelites left Egypt and that they were armed and ready to fight.

Listen to last years Beshalach podcast: God;s Gracious Ruse

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Hard Hearts

parshat bo, exodus 10-13

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on January 26, 2023. God hardens the heart of Pharaoh. We ignore the question of free will and God’s omnipotence and instead we ask: What makes a man’s heart so hard that it can’t be softened?

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Bo.  God hardens the heart of Pharaoh. We will survey, but largely ignore the question of free will and God’s omnipotence and instead we will ask: What makes a man’s heart so hard that it can’t be softened? So join us for Hard Hearts.


Well, welcome rabbi from Kuwait. It’s so great to have you. I am back in in Connecticut. And we are doing this early in the morning. I have a confession to make when we do it at night. Sometimes I have a scotch on my side. But today I have I have water. So, we’ll see how that goes. How are you, Rabbi.

Adam Mintz  01:08

I’m doing great. We’re having we’re having a great time here next week; we’ll be able to go back to our usual APM time, but it’s great to do it here. And I’m looking forward to talking about hard hearts.

Geoffrey Stern  01:17

Fantastic. So, the first verse of our parsha Exodus 10: 1 it says, Then God said to Moses, go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ and the hearts of his courtiers in order that I may display these my signs among them. And the word that is used is הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי , which is to be made heavy, we’ll get into that a little more. But this concept of hardening God’s heart, it’s not using a single technical term. If we look at Exodus 7: 3 looking back a little bit, it says but I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I might multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. There it says וַאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה  . I will make I would say “hard”. If I had to distinguish between the two הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי might be heavy, and אַקְשֶׁ֖ה  might be hard in Exodus 9: 12. It says but God stiffened the heart of Pharaoh and he would not heed them just as God had told Moses. And there it uses, I would say the more the use term throughout וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק ה’ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה . He made strong.

Adam Mintz  02:41

interesting, that Sefaria translated but Hashem stiffened the heart of Pharaoh. That’s a good word stiffen.

Geoffrey Stern  02:50

In Sefaria, and by the way, I’ve posted the notes both on our podcast, but also on clubhouse above, you can look at them, you can pick the translation that you’re using, and I chose to use Everett Fox. And so that is the way that he has translated it.

Adam Mintz  03:11

Isn’t that a good word? That’s not That’s not usually the way you would think of the words Hazak , but it’s a good it’s a good word. I mean, you can you can imagine that word stiffening?

Geoffrey Stern  03:20

Yes. Although I would think that Kashe is more like stiffened, you know, Hazak, I was about to say, when we finish a book of the Torah, we go Hazak, Hazak Ve’nithazek,  and there, it kind of means strength, you should have strength. You know, because we’re looking at all these words. If I was to say, Hazek in a negotiation, I am bolstering I am giving credence, I am strengthening your position. That to me is the the way I read Veyithazek. And of all of these, it almost feels it’s more in a transaction, I could see it in terms of a legal transaction, where this guy’s case was maybe strengthened. But it’s fascinating, nonetheless, that we have so many different terms for what ultimately happened, which is somehow or another, God and Moses were able to take advantage we’re able to maybe manipulate, we’re maybe even able to exploit and encourage a reaction from pharaoh that had all of these various facets involved. And that I think is really interesting to me.

Adam Mintz  04:43

It’s fascinating. I mean, absolutely fascinating and the fact that you have identified the fact that a different word is used. You wonder you wonder whether there was a different experience or you wonder whether the Torah is not quite sure you know what that means; how you express a hardening of the heart. Because it’s not something that we see anywhere else in the Torah, this you’ll get to in a minute. The fact of course, that the idea of hardening a heart, and therefore preventing him from repenting is something that you don’t find anywhere else in the Torah. So, you know, it’s almost as if the Torah itself is struggling to express it properly.

Geoffrey Stern  05:24

Well, that’s a perfect segue….  in the introduction, I said, we were going to try to survey but nonetheless stay away from the polemics and the philosophical question of how can Pharaoh have freewill, and nonetheless, God be omnipotent. But you have to mention it. And I think the truth is that because the rabbis were so sensitive to that question of how can you judge Pharaoh, if you’re in fact, manipulating him? How can you expect him to repent if you’ve closed the gates of repentance? Because they were so sensitive to that question, it made them focus on all of the various nuances that we’re going to discuss. So, we kind of ourselves can exploit it. So, Rashi starts right from the beginning, and he is clearly sensitive to this issue, and he says in Exodus 7: 3 is commentary. He says, מֵאַחַר שֶׁהִרְשִׁיעַ , that I will allow Pharaoh’s heart to harden, since he has already wickedly resisted me. Rashi and many of the commentators are trying to say that making Pharaoh’s heart hard was a progression. And it started from Pharaoh himself, that he was evil. He had a heart that was insensitive, and was pushing him in the direction that he went. And God simply exploited it. But it started, the precipitation was from Pharaoh himself. Last week we talked about the first three plagues, and how they related to Aaron and Moses. Now the rabbi’s look at the first five plagues. And he says in the case of the first five plagues, it is not stated, The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. So again, sensitivity to this issue, made them look into the weeds and come up with this thing that the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, if you will. And then afterwards, God took advantage of that. What How does that sound to you? Good.

Adam Mintz  07:45

I mean, that sounds exactly right. But what I find interesting, of course, when you get to get to this in a later source, is this is the idea of what we call Midah Keneget Midah…  and that is that Pharaoh deserved it, since he had wickedly resisted me. And it has manifest to me that the heathen nations by no spiritual satisfaction, and setting their whole hearts return to me, it is better than his heart should be hardened should be hardened, in order that my signs may be multiplied against him, so that he may recognize my divine power. The idea that this is the punishment, you know, this is something that I say every week in my parsha class that I give in shul before davening and that is that Rashi has the following view in terms of people in the Chumash. Rashi divides the people in the Chumash into two very binary categories. You’re either good or you’re bad. There’s nobody in the middle. All the people in Bereshit, right? Yaakov is good. Esau is bad. Yitzchak is good. Ishmael is bad. And here Rashi is very clear. Pharaoh is bad. The reason that God hardens his heart is because Pharaoh is bad. And therefore he deserves it.  That’s a strong term. Know that this is the way God punishes him. He deserves it. But I think that’s something especially because you have the Ramban and you have some other views that I think that’s important to say here, Pharaoh is a bad guy and he deserves.

Geoffrey Stern  09:18

So you mentioned the Ramban, and I think what the Ramban and the other commentaries flush out are different kinds of nuances and ways of looking at this. So on Exodus 9: 12, one of these verses that said that ויחזק ה’ את לב פרעה  Ramban says the following the magicians hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to pride themselves in their wisdom.  החרטומים מחזקים את לבו להתפאר אצלו בחכמתם and then he goes on to say, afterwards once the magician’s gave up, and said hey, we can’t do that. Then his iniquities ensnared him עונותיו אשר ילכדונו . So this is kind of fascinating because we tend to think that it is God who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart. But clearly, it was the circumstance that he created for himself in this particular case, and I cannot not and we’ll get to this later on, think in terms of what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine. Today, in terms of Putin, you know, you have a leader, he’s surrounded, maybe he’s in a bubble, he’s surrounded by advisers. And you cannot not blame him for who he surrounds himself by. So, he is to blame. But nonetheless, the magician’s in the beginning. And here we get this sense of pride. I love pride as an explanation of what was going on here, because we’re gonna get into the words but Kaved can be heavy, but it can also mean pride Kol Hakavod, all the honors should be to you I say, l’chavod HaRav the kavod of somebody is their power, one of the Greek words that is used, is their gravitas? Gravitas is a perfect word, like Kaved, it has both gravity and weight in it. And it also has this sense of who I am and power. So here we have a struggle may be between humility, and pride. And the pride is one of pride of knowledge, the Hartumim, the magician’s feel. And they gave to Pharaoh this, this this sense of false sense of power through knowledge. But that’s a fascinating dynamic as well, is it not? And it takes the discussion a little bit away from just God hardening Pharaoh’s heart to the circumstance and the etiology of how you get into a position that Pharaoh ended up in. Where he had a hard heart that could not be softened anymore. It’s fascinating. The Ramban is completely different than Rashi. If this was a class in medieval biblical commentaries, we would say that they couldn’t be more different, because the Ramban completely ignores God, you know, giving Pharaoh what he deserves, and says that it’s really an internal Egyptian phenomenon. Isn’t that fascinating? It has to do with the magicians and how the magicians dealt with Pharaoh, what the magicians thought of themselves. I mean, you wonder what led the Ramban. And this is an interesting question, what led the Ramban to give this kind of explanation? Because I think in this case, Rashi’s explanation is more to the point, the Ramban is a little more fanciful, because you don’t see that anywhere in the text. So there’s one refrain that keeps on coming up every time or pretty much every time God says I’m going to harden his heart, he typically will say, in order that I may display these my signs among them, that I will multiply my signs and Marvels. God has an agenda, it would seem, and I think what Ramban is focused on is how God kivi’yachol (as if to say) is exploiting the situation for his own ends. So in the Ramban Exodus 10: 1, it says that God is hardening his heart, not in order that I can punish him more on account of hardening his heart, but in order so that I can give my message so that I can publicize my power. So that’s kind of interesting to where God has an agenda and is taking advantage of the situation. And at a certain point when God takes over on the sixth plague, and starts actually, whether it’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart, are creating a situation that inevitably forces Pharaoh deeper into the corner, he’s exploiting it for something.

Adam Mintz  14:42

Yeah. And that relates to another question, and that is that in this week’s Parsha we have the last three plagues. We have locusts, we have darkness and we have the death of the first born. The question is asked by the commentators and the Ramban has a very specific view on this one What was the purpose of the plagues was the purpose of the plagues to prove to the Jews that God was God? What was the purpose of the plague to prove to the Egyptians, that God was God? And it sounds from the Ramban, as if the purpose was to prove to the Egyptians, that God was God? Right. That’s interesting. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Geoffrey Stern  15:23

Yeah, it is. It is interesting. You know, the fascinating thing is, because what lies at the source of your question is Why didn’t we just fast forward to the last plague? That’s ultimately the plague that hit at the heart of Pharaoh.

Adam Mintz  15:40

He’s God. He could have snapped his fingers and done it in one second. What did we need? I mean, let’s assume that the rabbinic interpretation is right, that it took a year for the plagues. What do you need a year for? That’s a year of slavery for the Jews. I mean if you were a slave, a year’s a long time, right. It’s international Holocaust Day this weekend, you know, a year could you imagine a year, God forbid, in a concentration camp, you say, another day in a concentration camp, you’d do anything to avoid?

Geoffrey Stern  16:10

And so the year enables us to really look at this as a process. And then the question becomes, what is the process? One of the fascinating things is, you mentioned today is Holocaust Day, it’s also a day that that Germany announced that it was going to permit tanks to be given to the Ukrainians. Imagine what would have happened if they had said that on day one. They that would have made Putin react in a totally different way, I believe then he is hopefully going to react now. Because it was so incremental. First, it was only body armor, then it was defensive weaponry. Now, all of a sudden, it’s almost like the plagues, and we’re gonna get to Erich Fromm at the end, who really did make a parallel between the Cold War and this whole process, this year process, if you will, with Pharaoh, but you can really see it, you can see that God in a sense, the text is threading a needle, and it is going somewhere. And I do think that that is absolutely fascinating. And in our Parsha in 8: 28, it says גם בפעם הזאת also this time. And what Rabbeinu Bachya says is that there is clearly up progression here that the first few plagues you had the magician’s, then it was Pharaoh all alone, and it was Pharaoh hardening his own heart, then it was God starting to harden his heart again, and what it shows us and I think this is the crux of the message of one of the messages that we have to take away and is that wonderful saying and Pirke Avot that says that one good deed leads to another מִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה  and one transgression leads to another in Avot 4: 2 עֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה  there is an etiology of sin, there is an etiology of once you pick your path and you go down it, yes, initially, it can be the influence of the Hartumim; the magician’s. And then next, it can be your own pride. And then ultimately, whether it’s God forcing your hand or you’ve dug yourself so deep, you can’t get out anymore, you actually do lose your free will. And that is where I think psychology and our own experience can parallel so much of what the rabbi’s have been saying, which is there was a transition here from having free will on the part of Pharaoh to not having free will, and then having other parties who are able to exploit the situation for their own ends. It’s a fascinating studying in how we can I can can put ourselves into a corner.

Adam Mintz  19:14

I think that’s right. I mean, I think that progression, you know, this goes back to your question, why didn’t God just snap his fingers and just take the Jews out of Egypt? Go to plague 10? The answer is that it’s all in the progression. And that’s the question what the progression is the Ramban’s view is that progression was to convince the Egyptians that God was God, that can’t happen in one second. You know, basically, I think what the Ramban says whether he says it explicitly or not, is had God just done the 10th plague? You could have written it off; you would have said, you know, it was in the water or something happened to the first born, whatever you would say, you would explain it away. But a whole year of this, you can’t you can’t explain that away. That That must be something.

Geoffrey Stern  20:01

So it as the rabbi’s of evaluating this, they come up with some fascinating insights as well. And again, I think I’m not a big fan of polemics. I’m not a big fan of apologetics, which are both terms used when others say Ha-ha, you see, you’re a hypocrite you say you believe in one God, and that God permits you free will and you can do teshuva, something that a Polytheist doesn’t have to worry about because he can play one god off of another. But when you have this, this structure that Judaism introduced into the world, you have Talmudic chapters that talk about the non-Jews will point their finger at you and say, aha, you see, this is wrong, you’re not consistent. But that forces the rabbis to then look at these texts in a new way. So, you might forget about the polemics. You know, we mentioned a Hebrew University professor a few weeks ago, called Umberto Cassuto. And he says, if you read the text, just the way it was written, none of these philosophical questions come up. If you look at this as an act of war, where Moses and God are fighting for the freedom of their people, and Pharaoh is holding it back. hardening the heart is just another way of saying It’s another tool. It’s like a battering ram to knock it down. And he hardened his heart, he manipulated the situation. But nonetheless, because they were apologetics around here, it forced the rabbis to look at it in a new way. And, and one of the insights that Rashi gives is, he says, and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened in 7: 22. He says, You are doing this by witchcraft: “You are bringing straw to Afarayim”— a city that is full of straw; thus you bring sorcery to Egypt, a land that is full of sorcery (Menachot 85a; Exodus Rabbah 9:6-7). He is saying that God sunk down to the level of the Egyptians and was playing with them. Because it was kind of like selling ice to the Eskimos, since they had magicians, since they were at the top of the world in terms of the technology of magic, God could have taken a totally different route. But instead, he played by their rules. And of course, that just pulled them into it. So he threw down the staff, they threw down the staff turn the water into blood. This is a fascinating analysis of why we had to go through these 10 plagues. He took advantage of their weakness, of their hubris and of their pride, and he took it to the nth degree.

Adam Mintz  22:54

I think that’s right, that’s correct. And he made the point that your hubris, your arrogance is what gets you in trouble. Because if you realize that God is the one who controls everything, then you need to be humble, not arrogant, right. It’s all related to belief in God is the opposite of hubris.

Geoffrey Stern  23:16

So in Exodus 10: 3 it says, So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, Thus said God, the God of the Hebrews, how long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go that they may worship Me, and the Hebrew is עַד־מָתַ֣י מֵאַ֔נְתָּ לֵעָנֹ֖ת מִפָּנָ֑י , “anot”is to be poor. It is to be very humble. We all know that Moses in Numbers 12: 3 says, Now Moses was very humbled more so than any other human being on Earth. עָנָ֣ו מְאֹ֑ד . So here this is fascinating, because we normally think of humility, as something that a very pious person is. But if you take humility, and you contrast it to this heavy heart, this heart full of hubris, this hot, full of rigor mortis, this stiff, heart humility, becomes something that opens you up to other ideas that opens you up to think differently. It becomes a powerful strategy, as well as something that is a characteristic thought of highly. That to me this, this kind of, if only you Egyptians would humble yourself, you would be able to take advantage and you would be able to take stock of this situation. That to me is a fascinating insight into the power of Moses, the leader, who was this humble person, as counterposed to Pharaoh, this person who was closed and rigid and stiff.

Adam Mintz  24:58

And let me make that point even stronger… it’s interesting עַד־מָתַ֣י מֵאַ֔נְתָּ לֵעָנֹ֖ת מִפָּנָ֑י . How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? That’s not the way you should say it. How long will you be arrogant? But no, it’s not how long will you be arrogant? It’s that he refuses to be humble. It’s not that he’s arrogant, but that he has the ability to be humble, but he refuses to be humble. And that’s exactly what you’re saying. And that is that the process is to force him to be humble, because he’s refusing to be humble.

Geoffrey Stern  25:35

Absolutely. You know, a year or two ago, we did an episode on bathroom ethics. Because the first plague started with Pharaoh going down into the Nile, because he thought of himself as a God who doesn’t defecate, and in Shemot Rabbah 9: 8 in which it tells that story. It starts by saying that Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn Another interpretation of PHARAOH’s HEART IS STUBBORN (KABED). God said to him: Wretch! With word with which thou showest thy stubbornness, will I glorify Myself (mith-kabed) over thee, as it is Said: And I will get Me honor upon Pharaoh   So here, it all comes together, God is taking advantage of the stubbornness of Pharaoh to honor himself. The rabbis in this one are taking this sense of Kava aid, which can mean to honor somebody, and also bring somebody down. And typically, you think of the negative side of honor that a person thinks too highly of themselves, they have too much gravitas, that weight weighs them down. But here in a flip of words, they are saying that God strategically is taking advantage of pharaohs, perception of himself as a God, to turn that into honoring God through these miracles kind of a fun play with words, but one that shows how aware the rabbis were of what was the dynamic going on here, in terms of the power play?

Adam Mintz  27:12

I love that. I think that’s really nice. And I think that’s what it is. It’s a power play that relates to refusing to humble, it’s a power play, right? I mean, each side is trying to get the other side to budge. I think that that’s interesting, now, God wins at the end. That’s a very important point, because from the Egyptian’s perspective is you have to remember this, and that is the Egyptians have many of their own gods. So for God to win, means God wins over the ancient gods, and that the people have to recognize that God is not just one of the gods, but God is a special God. That’s a very important point. It’s not one against one, it’s one against many, and God is recognized as being the one God.

Geoffrey Stern  28:03

Absolutely, I love that the fact that we’re talking about this power plane. So Martin Luther King, Jr, two years after, on the anniversary of the rule that was passed, that permitted everybody to have a fair education. He wrote a book and in the book, he had a chapter called The death of evil upon the seashore. And it was all about the Exodus. And we talked about this a few weeks ago in terms of the power of the Exodus story. But he, like us is not focused on this dynamic of free choice. He’s focused on this dynamic of power. And he writes, “The Pharaohs stubbornly refused to respond to the cry of Moses. Plague after plague swept through the Pharoah’s domain, and yet they insisted on following their recalcitrant path.”  And here’s the punchline. “This tells us something about evil that we must never forget. It never voluntarily relinquishes its throne. Evil is stubborn, hard and determined. It never gives up without a bitter struggle and without the most persistent and almost fanatical resistance.”  I love what Martin Luther King Jr. Does with our discussion. He says, if it’s a year, if it’s a lifetime of struggling with these plagues, it’s to show us that evil doesn’t go away so easy. And that is the crux of our story here. And that is the crux of the hard heart of Pharaoh to tell you; don’t think that this is just gonna go away. And this is even more, I think, powerful coming from a man who believed in nonviolent resistance, but it is such a powerful take on this whole subject that we’ve been discussing.

Adam Mintz  29:56

It’s beautiful, it really pulled puts the whole thing kind Given perspective and you’re right the fact that he was against violence really makes the point all that much stronger I think.

Geoffrey Stern  30:07

So I want to finish up with Eric Fromm um one of my favorite books if I haven’t said it before, really impacted me in my in my journey into Judaism was You shall be as gods by Erich Fromm And Erich Fromm, clearly was a psychologist. He was a thought leader, but he was a totally engaged in his Judaism and in his texts. And if you read that book, you’ll see from his footnotes and notes, he studied these texts. And he glosses over the difference between I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh hardened his heart, it’s all the same. He says What the biblical text stresses here is one of the most fundamental laws of human behavior. Every evil act tends to harden man’s heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good act tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom does he have to change: the more is he determined already by previous action. But there comes a point of no return, when man’s heart has become so hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom, when he is forced to go on and on until the unavoidable end which is, in the last analysis, his own physical or spiritual destruction, and then he goes on to bring it to history that he thought in the 60s was the past, but it’s still here. He says, Anyone who reads the story attentively will recognize that the miracles Moses and Aaron perform on behalf of God are not miracles intended to change man’s heart. In the first place they are from the very beginning meant only to impress both the Hebrews and the Egyptians. They are in their nature no different from what the Egyptian magicians are not able to do, except that eventually the Hebrews’ secret weapons prove to be a little more effective. The irony of the story is that the all-powerful God chose miracles which repeat, or only slightly improve on, Egyptian magic.  So here Fromm is saying literally what Rashi said a few seconds ago, which I called selling ice to the eskimos, that God is talking and arguing with Pharaoh, in a very infantile way, to show us that this is not a story about God. It’s a story about humanity, and how we fall into a pit and into a rut. Indeed, he says, Indeed, perhaps never in human history has it been possible to understand this part of the biblical story as well as today. Two powerful blocs of mankind are attempting to find a solution to the threat of weapons – weapons compared to which the ten plagues appear harmless. Until now both sides have shown better sense than did Pharaoh; they have yielded …. So, he goes on, and I suggest you look at the notes. But what is so fascinating as we see Putin, and Russia and Ukraine play out, and America is number one, the open question which we didn’t discuss is, is even Moses and God on the same page? God, is trying to exploit the situation to bring pride to him, Moses is trying to get out of the country, and Pharaoh is trying to protect his pride in his regime. So there were actually three actors here. And I suggest to all of you that nowhere has current events served as a better prism, to look at our Torah reading, then we are living through today.

Adam Mintz  33:53

I think that’s really beautiful. And the fact that at the very end, you brought up the fact that Moshe is not necessarily on the same page as God, and that God is worried about proving, God’s value in the fact that God should win among the gods. And Moshe doesn’t really care about that at all. But Moshe cares about is getting out of the country. I think it’s a really good topic. And I think we can look forward maybe next year in Parshat Bo to dealing with that topic. Shabbat Shalom from Dubai. I look forward to being back in New York next week on the same time zone 8pm New York Eastern Standard Time. I hope the weather is nice and Shabbat Shalom to everybody. Shabbat shalom, Geoffrey and regards to everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  34:32

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi, Shabbat Shalom to all of us. And all of us should have a soft heart, an open heart and open mind. I’ll see you all next week.

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Listen to last year’s Parshat Bo Podcast: Walk Like an Egyptian

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Liberation Theology – for Jews

parshat shemot – shemot 1 -3

Join Geoffrey Stern broadcasting live from Jerusalem and recorded on Clubhouse on January 12th 2023. The Exodus from Egypt is not simply an episode in the script of the Jewish People; it is The refrain. The fact that it represents the essence of the Jewish people is captured in every commandment that is זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. Modern liberation movements have taken their inspiration from the exodus as a paradigm so we what does the Exodus Liberation paradigm look like for Jews and for Israel?

Sefairia Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  We host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Shemot. The Exodus from Egypt is not simply an episode in the script of the Jewish People; it is The refrain. The fact that it represents the essence of the Jewish people is captured in every commandment that is זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. Modern liberation movements have taken their inspiration from the exodus as a paradigm so what does the Exodus Liberation paradigm look like for Jews and for Israel? Liberation Theology – for Jews


Well, welcome to Madlik. Rabbi Adam Mintz is actually traveling today, and I am broadcasting live from Yerushalayim, the holy city of Jerusalem, I’m actually looking out of my hotel window right now, and seeing the hills of Jerusalem. So as I said in the introduction, this is the beginning of the book of Exodus; of Shemot. And Exodus is the refrain of the Jewish people. It’s not simply another episode, you never say zaycher l’akedah, …. You don’t say when you do a commandment in remembrance of creation, in remembrance of the binding of Isaac even in remembrance of the giving of the Torah or the entering into the land. But in terms of zecher l’tziyat Mitzrayim. We all know it from the Haggadah, which obviously, commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, but we have in mechilta d’Rabbi YishmaeliIt says that tefillin is zecher L’tziot mitzrayim to the outstretched arm. We have in Midrash Lech Tov  מלמד שאף הסוכה זכר ליציאת מצרים. That even building and living in the sukkah is in remembrance of leaving the land of Egypt. Couldn’t say it better than Midrash lekach Tov שהרי כל המועדים על שום יציאת מצרים all of our iconic Jewish holidays, and many commandments are for remembrance of the leaving of Egypt, which leads us to ask the question, what is in fact, the message of leaving Egypt. And it also should not surprise us that we are not the only ones to recognize in the leaving of Egypt, something that becomes iconic to the Jewish people, and frankly, something that becomes almost a legacy, a gift to the world. I called the name of today’s episode liberation theology for Jews. The term liberation theology, as we shall learn shortly, was coined by the Catholic and Protestant churches of South America in their struggle to depose the ruling powers and to lead an uprising of the poor and the dispossessed. And clearly, they got their model from leaving Egypt. So, I think we stand on solid ground. When we say, what is this theology of the Exodus? What is this liberation theology? If we look in our parsha, it begins talking about God seeing hearing, feeling the suffering of his people, and even in there we start to see that this is not only a national story, but it is a universal story. In Exodus 2: 23, he says, God heard their moaning and God remembered the covenant. In Exodus 3: 7-10 It says God says, I am mindful of their suffering. He says, I have heard my people in Egypt and I’ve heard their outcry, because of their taskmasters I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, moreover I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them, Come, therefore, I will send you (speaking to Moses), to Pharaoh, and you shall free my people, the Israelites from Egypt. And I think just based on these two passages, we can kind of see that on the one hand, the Exodus certainly has to do with a covenant that God had with a particular people. But there is also this universal “I heard there moaning”, וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹקִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם. And I think that is very much the basis of what makes this a universal story and a universal paradigm for liberation and revolution. Michael Walzer is a world-famous political scientist, and he wrote a whole book called Exodus and Revolution, saying how of all of the myths of all of the origin stories of a new nation, it is the Exodus story, whether for the African American, the black slaves, and Martin Luther King’s metaphor of I’ve been to the mountaintop, or, as I’ve mentioned before, the liberation theology of the South American peasants who uprose. The Exodus story, because it contains words as see the oppression, heard, the suffering is so universal. In Exodus 3; 16-18, it says, I will take you out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites and Hittites to a land flowing with milk and honey. So, it is not only seeing and hearing the oppression and the pain, it is also a redemption story. It is a repatriation story. It is a story of God working through history, to help the dispossessed and the alienated. He says, they will listen to you, meaning the people of Israel, and you shall go to the elders of Israel. And you shall say to them, God; the God of the Hebrews, became manifest to us now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness, to sacrifice to our God. So really in these three or four different paragraphs that are in our parsha, you get all of the ingredients that would make this such a powerful image, a powerful paradigm, and therefore easily understandable that Exodus and revolution have been so intertwined. So what exactly is this liberation theology? It is, in the words of its creators, and you’ll hear as I read some of them how really they nail to a large degree, what the Exodus means to us Jewish people. So I’m reading one, and Enrique Dussel, Exodus as a Paradigm in Liberation Theology The Exodus was the experience which created the consciousness of the people of Israel. The people formed in the structuring centre which determined its way of organizing time and space. Note that I am not saying simply that the Exodus is part of the contents of the consciousness of the people of Israel. If that were the case, the Exodus would be one item of information among others. More than an item of information, it is its structuring centre, in that it determines the integrating logic, the principle of organisation and interpretation of historical experience. That is why the Exodus does not persist as a secondary experience … It has come to be the paradigm for the interpretation of all space and all time. So truly this understanding where we begin Shemot just as we finish Bereshit by saying this was the formation of a nation. The Hebrew word for the book of Exodus is Shemot, which means names and what that means is we’re seeing the metamorphosis of names and tribes and individuals into a corporate whole, in that, too, is the story of the Exodus that is the paradigm of the Exodus, quoting another, Revd. Mathew N. Musyoki “the exodus is central within the Old Testament…the key to Israel’s understanding of both God and itself. It is repeatedly re-interpreted throughout the Bible,‟ making the hermeneutical possibilities of the exodus unique for liberation theology. Thus, its actual historical happening leaves serves liberationists as a model, done with a reading of the texts on the basis of present reality. Similarly, The Exodus…became the founding event not only for the course of Israelite history, but also, through its kerygmatic appropriation, for other oppressed communities. Hence, its foundational character is continually being reinforced through so many re-readings, a sure sign of its richness as a source. Hence this source is eminent to liberationists as a contact point.  Even when there is no reasonable ground exegetically it seems liberationists continue following this model. For instance, Croatto seems insistence by asserting that, “The creative and varied re-expression of the Exodus theme within the Bible indicates the pre-eminence of the meaning of the Exodus over the event, and this in return becomes a norm of interpretation for us.‟ Thus, Exodus can be imported to a given context, e.g. the poor, the sick and the oppressed.” So again, what we see is the fact that the exodus is referenced so many times, not only within our liturgy, but much more importantly, within our Bible itself, almost leads it to beg for interpretation, beg for reimagining. And that is what these theologians said, we are going to encounter some thinkers who felt that they maybe took too much of a license in exporting the Exodus paradigm to their own moments of repression, and revolt. But I think you can at this point, agree with these theologians, that the fact that the exodus was used and referenced so much throughout our Bible, it almost gives you that permission to do so. And in fact, one of the questions that we are going to explore today is, with all that saturation of messaging, what actually does the Exodus then become for the Jewish people and for the people of Israel. But let’s continue a little more in the history of liberation theology, as it surfaced, in the 20th century, in South America, it was involved with, with the Castro revolution, Castro compares himself to a Moses. In fact, some liberation theologians like Segundo Galilea actually prefer Moses as a model of the political leader over Jesus. So Moses is then taken to be this leader, who goes down and faces truth to power. And of course, this brings back that image of Martin Luther King Jr. and his speech of I’ve been to the mountaintop. And it’s important that it’s not one of pride in terms of his comparison to Moses or arrogance, he is comparing himself to that aspect of Moses, who doesn’t make it, who suffers with his people who is beaten up and scarred by the liberation. So really, you can understand that we, as readers of the Hebrew Bible can benefit from how other peoples have read it as well. So here’s where the story gets a little bit interesting. After the revolutions in South America, and they had a very strong Marxist bend to them, what happened was, in many cases, the people that took over were the new Pharaohs of the day. And when, in 1985, the Poles began their own exercise in self-determination. And as a very strongly Catholic country, they read their Old Testament as well. And they had a real problem because while they believed in the message and the relevance of the Exodus paradigm and story to theirs, they couldn’t help but note that they were trying to exercise themselves from the same Marxist forces that coined the term liberation theology. So they stopped using the word liberation, a fascinating insight into the history of ideas where the liberation which you could make a case was something that the theologians kind of took a little bit of liberty with, and projected on to the whole story of the Exodus, which was really, at its core, a story of redemption, if you want to look into a theological perspective, or one of being able to leave oppression, they, they took it to mean and overthrow and to re-build a society. So, the Poles came back and they started calling it redemption. And the church has followed suit, it made an interesting turn, it says this, and this is coming from the papal instructions in 1984, that started to deal with a Polish Pope, with the Pole’s revolution, and it says that is why the liberation of the Exodus cannot be reduced to a liberation, which is principally or exclusively political in nature, moreover it is significant that the term freedom is often replaced in Scripture, by the very closely related term redemption. So, in an interesting turn, in order to explain that, the, the secular antagonistically, atheistic Marxist regime that had promised happiness to everyone, and forced everyone to be “happy”. Now, their liberation became a someone else’s oppression. Now, the liberation theology started to take a little bit of a modification, in that it became a liberation to a redemption to and the focus was on the sense of maybe a spiritual redemption, maybe something more related to religious. And before we get into what the Jewish commentators, will say, we cannot if we are talking about liberation theology, not mentioned the struggle and successful fight for Soviet Jewry, where the banner was let my people go. So here it was the Jews themselves that stood up to the USSR to Mother Russia. And clearly, using the story of the Exodus, as a story of liberation, turned to Brezhnev and the Soviet regime, and said, Let my people go. So, it is a powerful political paradigm, that we as Jews, as readers of the Hebrew Bible, can only be proud of in terms of the solace and in terms of the motivation, and that light at the end of the tunnel that it has given and it will continue to give to people who are subjugated, to people who are alienated to people who are disenfranchised. But when you go to the Jewish commentaries, and I will start with, we’ve come across John D. Levinson, before profound thinker, an academician at Yale. And he has a monograph on Exodus and liberation. And he goes through all the texts, and while he certainly gives much, much respect, and enthusiasm for the way that our Exodus story has been used, he also tries to bring it back to its source. And of course, the key theme of Exodus is this sense of from slavery to freedom. The story of the Exodus, at the end of the day, is the story of emancipation of slaves. And what Levinson argues is that the truth be told that there are provisions within the Bible after Exodus after Sinai that provide for having slaves. He brings and I certainly suggest that you take a look at the Sefaria notes on today’s podcast. Because in his article, he shows how the exodus was used by both the abolitionists and by the slave-owners. To prove their case, the abolitionists would say that clearly the Bible is trying to limit slavery, you have to free your slaves after a certain amount of time, during the sabbatical year, you can’t work your slave. When you release your slave, you have to make sure that your slave has payment for the work that they have done. If a slave works hard, he can buy off his freedom. And so those that bring these arguments will say that it condones the institution of slavery as it was. But it is showing a direction in terms of where it should be, and severely limiting it. And of course, the slave-owners would say, yes, but don’t sleight-of-hand, pass over the fact that it condones slavery, it has jurisprudence for slavery the same way it has jurisprudence for marriage. And for other institutions, that means it recognizes it. So Levinson wishes to argue if you want to be really honest to the texts, you can say that the story is simply about freeing the slaves. And the direction that he goes is based on the key line that starts to appear in our parsha and gets developed more and more as the story progresses. And that is, in Exodus 3: 16 How God says, Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to our God. And you can say that their being diplomatic or strategic. They’re saying to Pharaoh, that they simply want to go into the desert to worship their god, they don’t want their freedom. Later, it says, In Exodus 5: 1, Let my people go that they may celebrate a festival for me in the wilderness. Maybe this is why we have so many references to the Haggim; the festivals and Yetziat Mitzraim. And then it gets to the punch line in Exodus 9: 1 and there it says, And God said to Moses, go to Pharaoh and say to him, Thus said God, the God of the Hebrews, Let my people go to worship me. שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־עַמִּ֖י וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי  And, of course, the important thing of the word וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי. And worship me is that EVeD, slave, and worship (serve), or in this case, do the holy service is the same word. And so John Levinson makes the argument that if you really want to be true to the text, you have to admit that we’re not talking about pure freedom, we are talking about taking away Pharaoh, an evil taskmaster, an evil slave owner, and replacing him with the ultimate Master, which is God. But it is not a freedom if you want to be true to the texts. You who could make the case. And I think that this is a case that if you want to make a larger message out of this, you can say, the term :This idea of liberation through a change of masters shows how misleading it is to summarize the exodus through the popular slogan, “Let My people go.” The full form of the challenge is actually sallab ‘et-‘ammi w[ya’abd3ni, “Let My people go that they may serve Me.”  The term “liberty,” therefore, can indeed describe the result of redemption of the sort typified by the exodus, but only if some crucial semantic distinctions are maintained.’ One of the several meanings of “liberty” in Western thought is government by law rather than by a tyrant. If this is what we identify as the result of the exodus for Israel, then “liberty” and the process that produces it, “liberation,” are appropriate terms for the biblical process.” So as you can see, Levinson severely limits the extent of what this liberation is, but in doing so, he does make a profound case that I think because he is an academic scholar that you can really say is serious. And that is that whether the Jews were freed, or the Israelites were freed from Pharaoh, an evil, slave master, to serve God, the ultimate master, but ultimately, how do they serve that God, they serve that God by keeping His law. And at the end of the day, it is the laws, the book of laws of the Hebrew Bible. That is what ultimately provides the liberation in the Jewish mind. And I think he brings one kind of interesting example. And that example is, again, from law. If you remember, I mentioned a little bit earlier, that one of the things that he promised the Jewish people is that when you leave, Exodus 3: 21 says, and I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people, so that when you go, you will not go away empty handed. Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor, and the lodger in her house objects of silver and gold, and clothing, and you shall put these on your sons and daughters, thus stripping the Egyptians. This occurs at least five times in the biblical narrative. And one wonders, what is the meaning of this? They were getting their freedom? Why is it so important that they were given the wealth of Egypt and what Levinson does, following a great theologian named David Daube, is saying here they are following the law of freeing a slave, when one frees a slave, as I said a little bit before one is required to provision that slave. So here, too, this fits very neatly into Levinson’s concept, that redemption and liberation in the Jewish sense of the Hebrew Bible is much more, I would say, pedestrian, much more limited, but nonetheless profound, and that is it is the law. And to give an example of that, we are saying to Pharaoh, you had to release these slaves, you had to follow the laws of the Hebrew Bible, and you did not. And therefore God is releasing them, taking them to worship Him וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי, and he is provisioning them. This serves as an amazing segue into the thinker that I want to finish with and leave you with. And that is a thinker whose liberation theology if you will, is, as as fascinating today as it’s ever been. The name of the thinker was Yeshayahu Leibowitz, you might have heard of his sister Nechama Leibowitz, who are taught Old, Old Testament studies at the Hebrew University. But Yeshayahu Leibowitz was known as being a firebrand; a thinker, who shocked a who loved to shock. And he was a firebrand, a maverick who marched to his own drumbeat.  And he was particularly struck by the Six Day War. And he was particularly struck by the fact that the in a sense, the people of Israel were making of the victory of the Six Day War into something that was miraculous, and something that was eschatological, was messianic, and he felt that by doing that we’re actually engaging in idol worship. And he issued a bunch of articles. The first one was published (prior to Passover 1971) in Jeshurun, which is a synagogue in Jerusalem, which had the intelligentsia of the religious Zionist movement there. And he wrote a number of articles. One of them was actually called the Dis-Kotel. He said, When we have a Kotel, we will make it into a Diss-Kotel. He was very much against this celebration and worship of place. He thought that was very un-Jewish. And what he wrote about was that in fact, the Passover was an incomplete redemption first and foremost. And along with Levinson, he says that the key to the Redemption was to keep the law (to accept the Ol Malchut Shamayim… the yoke of God’s kingship) everything in Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s philosophy of Judaism was that we are a legal community, and that we achieve perfection and we worship God by keeping his laws, the dalet amot of Halacha, the four cubits of the Law. And that is ultimately along with Levinson What Let my people go to serve Thee is all about. And he said that all of those commentators and thinkers, whether they are Rav Kook, or whoever, who were trying to imbibe both the war and the victory of the Six Day the occupation of our territories to make that into this grand scheme of redemption. We’re not reading history and a God into our history. But we’re actually repudiating the whole message of the Exodus. And he too brings an example from the law. His holiday was Hanukkah, because on Hanukkah, we, the Jewish people stood up for their keeping of the Law. And he says, and this is built out in the law that says on Passover, you can only read half of the Hallel prayer, whereas on Hanukkah, you read the full Hallel. So again, it’s a trivial example. But both him and Levinson are looking at Jewish thinkers who see the book of the Torah as a book of rules, and use those rules to limit these theological flourishes. And these messianic tendencies, which they see more as idolatry than the true religion that was a given to us by Moses, and experienced with the Exodus. So it’s a fascinating read on what the message of the exodus is. And I think one that deserves further study.  I’ve listened to some podcasts written recently with the election of the new government in Israel. And one of the most interesting thinkers to listen to is someone named Yossi Klein Halevi, who is at the Shalem Center, and he’s a very open-minded liberal thinker, but he used to be a student of Maer Kahana. And he says, If you want to understand this new government, you should read a book called 40 Years by Maer Kahana. And I encourage all of you to do it. And you’ll see literally that he is saying everything that this new government is saying and what I would like to suggest today is, if you would like to see the flip side of what alternative philosophy; a Jewish philosophy would be, to that which is being espoused by what Yeshayahu Leibowitz would be calling these religious Zionists who have lost their way. is Yeshayahu Leibowitz. And maybe we will have an opportunity to explore more of his writings and to learn from him at least, who really wrote them at the time of the Six Day War, but literally was able to prophesize a time when land, occupation and Messianism  were more important. So with that, I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom. And we’ll see you all next week with Rabbi Adam Mintz back. Thank you so much.

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Imaginary Prayer

parshat vayechi, genesis 48

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on January 5th 2023. Jacob, upon his reunion with Joseph exclaims: לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי “I had never imagined” that I would see my son again. The word he uses for imagining is the same word we use for praying, so we imagine what prayer would be as a form of imagining.

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Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is vayechi. Jacob, upon his reunion with Joseph exclaims: לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי “I had never imagined”.  He had never imagined that he would see his son again. The word he uses for imagining פִלָּ֑לְתִּי is the same word we use for praying להתפלל, and for prayer תְפִלָה  so join us as we imagine what prayer would be as a form of imagining. Imaginary Prayer


Well, welcome. Rabbi Mintz, you and I are both are headed to the Middle East. You’re going to be in Dubai next week, and I will please God be in Israel. So this is a bon voyage podcast. But welcome

Adam Mintz  01:15

And the end of the book of Genesis. So it’s perfect.

Geoffrey Stern  01:18

It is perfect. So, I think about two podcasts ago, I did it on body language. I really talked about prayer. And what if any aspect of physical movement was a part, could be a part of Jewish prayer. And today, as you could tell from the intro, we’re also going to be talking about prayer imagination in prayer. And I’m starting to think, you know, you question yourself, why you pick a topic. And I think, ultimately, and this is a confession at the beginning of the podcast, that I must feel when I go to my synagogue, that I am not getting the type of nurturing the type of stimulation that I want. I find that prayer in the typical American synagogue is grossly wanting. And I think that is the only way I can explain why when I read a parsha, I focus on something that has to do with prayer. So that’s my that’s my confession to you. Do you ever feel that your prayer needs recharge or reboot? You pray a lot more than me!

Adam Mintz  02:33

That’s right. Yes. I think that prayer needs a recharge or reboot, rethinking re reimagining I think that’s a great term you used.: imagination…  we need to think about it a little bit.

Geoffrey Stern  02:45

Well, great. So, in Genesis 48: 11, as I said, it says, and Israel and of course, we know that is Jacob, who had a name change after wrestling with an angel. And Israel said to Joseph, I never thought to see you again. And here God has let me see your children as well. So he’s looking at his son Joseph, who was a sold as a slave, but his kids told him that he had been torn to pieces and died. And here he is seeing that son, with grandchildren to boot. And he goes, and this is the translation. לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי I never thought another explanation. Another translation that you see is I never expected. So, we have thinking and expectation. But as I said in the introduction, פִלָּ֑לְתִּי comes from the same root as להתפלל to pray, and that we have come across previous times in Genesis in Genesis 20. It says, therefore restore the man’s life since he is a prophet, he will intercede for you, after Abraham pimps off Sara as his sister, and then the Pharaoh gets leprosy. And he says, why did you do this to me? Abraham says, I will pray for you I will intercede is the translation. In Genesis 20: 17. It says Abraham then prayed to God, and God healed. Avimelech, interesting that both of these referred references are to a prayer of healing. But nonetheless, להתפלל is typically taken as something that means to pray. And if you look at your typical concordance in the Sefira notes that go along with this podcast and are posted on this clubhouse. It talks about it’s a primitive word that means to pray, to entreat judgment, prayer, supplication and finally only one time, it means thought. So in our parsha, it is seemingly a very unique angle, a very unique way of taking this word to Palal. What do you think rabbi? Is it thought? Is it expected? Or is it something else?

Adam Mintz  05:21

I mean, both of those are good. And of course, the question is how it relates to prayer, להתפלל. And the amazing thing about the word להתפלל. להתפלל in grammar is called the reflexive, meaning it reflects back on you. So, prayer really means to think about yourself, or to imagine yourself, right. And I think that’s really interesting. By the way, the same word Pelilut is used later in the Torah, at the end of the book of Devarim it means to judge. To think into judges the same thing. But it’s an interesting idea that prayer might be that we judge ourselves.

Geoffrey Stern  06:05

So I think that there’s almost universal consensus that in  להתפלל, whatever Palel means the fact that it’s reflexive is fascinating. And so, and that really relates to what does it mean? Because whatever it means, you’re almost doubling over you’re doing upon yourself. So, I’m going to quote a few classical commentaries as we explore what it does mean, or what it could mean. So, the Hizkuni. He’s obviously troubled by the fact that if this means something different than elsewhere, how does it relate to prayer? So he says, It means he had not even prayed to see Joseph again. And at least a few commentaries say there is this concept in halacha. In Jewish law, that you can’t make a bracha l’vatala. You can’t make a prayer, especially one that uses God’s name. If you don’t have a justification to say it. In other podcasts, we’ve talked about just the idea of praying, you need permission, you almost need God to tell you, I give you permission to pray. But you can’t make a prayer over fruit if you’re not going to bite into and eat the fruit. According to the Hizkuni, because he’s struggling to connect it to prayer, is that this was so far from my mind from reality, that I didn’t even permit myself to pray, because I didn’t feel that there was any positive outcome that could happen. And that’s how he kind of relates it to this other concept of it hadn’t entered my thought, or it hadn’t entered my imagination. But I think he’s struggling with it. Do you agree?

Adam Mintz  08:01

I agree. I mean, it’s not clear exactly what it means. It’s a font. I mean, what the reason that you picked it out, it’s a funny use of the word in the context in this week’s parsha. It’s not the word you would expect. And that’s why it’s something that’s worth talking about.

Geoffrey Stern  08:19

Yeah. So I mean, like the Ibn Ezra says, and again, he this is in line with what you were saying. He says, it comes from the same root as פלילים, judges. And he says, So, in a sense, my mind never judged that I would ever see you. So, we have now two commentaries, who are trying somehow to link it to the traditional term of either prayer wouldn’t enter my name to make the prayer or to judge, I would never have judged rationally that this would be the case. And so, again, the Radak very similar to what I said before it says that he was afraid that he was saying that he had not prayed to God concerning being reunited with Joseph in this life, as he had considered it as forbidden, vain prayer. He was afraid of praying in vain. And that’s a fascinating concept as well, this concept of praying in vain. How does that strike you?

Adam Mintz  09:34

That’s a great concept; that praying in vain, because we generally feel that prayer is always good. Praying in vain. The Talmud is a great thing. The Talmud says if a woman who’s pregnant, it doesn’t pay to pray, whether it’s going to be a boy or a girl, because it either is a boy or a girl or not, your prayers are not going to change anything. So, a prayer in vain means a prayer to change something that is already reality.

Geoffrey Stern  10:04

I mean, but if you think in terms of kind of the audacity of prayer, the question of what sort of a prayer is a prayer in vain. And I think it’s pretty obvious when it comes to the example that I gave before, which is when you make a blessing, over doing something, and you don’t do it, but here, you kind of wonder, and I think this might touch on the crux of the issue here. You know, can we not pray for the impossible? Can we not pray for something that is not totally rational? And I think that’s kind of what they’re also struggling with. Where, what is this prayer that Jacob says he didn’t dare to make? I think when we go to Rashi and usually, I start with Rashi, but I think that Rashi is so much on the money here. I left him for last. And of course, all the other commentaries, saw Rashi first, Rashi says I had never dared to cherish the thought that I would again, see his face לֹא מְלָאַנִי לִבִּי לַחֲשֹׁב מַחֲשָׁבָה to think a thought. He says Politi is an expression for thinking. So now we’ve had Politi is for prayer. Politi is for judging. And now with Rashi we’re starting to come for prayer is just to think and I would dare say “imagine”. Because what he’s really saying is that I couldn’t bring myself. I was so…  I had given up I had been Me’ayesh on ever seeing my son, let alone grandchildren that I wouldn’t dare. This is a whole new level.

Adam Mintz  12:03

That’s a whole new level. That is absolutely a whole new level. That he admits that he had given up hope from ever seeing them again, is a very personal statement. Right? I mean, and it’s a statement of thanksgiving to God, like, I can’t imagine this happen and look what just happened.

Geoffrey Stern  12:24

So, before we follow up a little bit on what Rashi has instituted here, that פִלָּ֑לְתִּי is not necessarily judging, which is certainly a form of thinking. And it’s definitely not praying. It’s just It hadn’t entered my thought, or my imagination. What I did is I pulled out all my books on my shelf ….  I guess, I’m kind of a prayer aficionado,  I have Eli Munk’s book on prayer, I have Hayim H. Donin’s book To Pray as a Jew, the first thing that I realized is so much of the books on Jewish prayer have to do with less with prayer, and more on the siddur, less with prayer, and more on prayers. And each of them. And I’ve quoted a Donin in my notes. I’ve also quoted some other sources. They all seem to be focused on our prayers on the Siddur, and particular prayers. And you know, a few weeks ago, we did Nishmat Kol Chai, there are some amazing prayers. But the actual concept of praying, there’s typically one paragraph that addresses the issue that we’re discussing. And almost universally, it focuses on the fact that להתפלל is reflexive. And most of them say it means to judge oneself: introspection. If you followed most of these books, you would assume that Jewish prayer is all about introspection. That’s certainly a part of it. And of course, we have to say that in the rabbinic tradition, Tefilah is generic prayer, but it’s more specifically the silent prayer the Amidah, the Shewmona Esrai, the 18th benedictions. So am I right there.

Adam Mintz  14:26

You are definitely right there.

Geoffrey Stern  14:28

And so, what is how does that strike you? That prayer is about introspection. Is that an aspect of it or do you think that’s the whole story?

Adam Mintz  14:35

When you jump to the idea that it’s the eighteen benedictions;  what we call an Hebrew The Amidah. I think that’s a term they use in English too. You have to understand something. Prayer didn’t start off that way. Prayer started off that everybody prayed their own prayer. It was only because Maimonides says it was only because people lost the ability to articulate their feelings in words that the rabbi’s instituted a standard prayer. So when you talk about what prayer is, it’s hard to say that prayer is, you know, the 18 benedictions. Because actually, that’s too rigid. Prayer is much beyond that. It’s just that when people stopped being able to express themselves, they started expressing it through the 18 benedictions. I think it’s much better to say that prayer is the way that we kind of, say introspection that we kind of imagine ourselves standing before God, and what does that mean about us? And what does that mean about our relationship with God?

Geoffrey Stern  15:51

So I totally agree, I did a Google search for prayer, Jewish prayer, and imagining, and I came up with one hit. It was how to pray well by Rabbi David Rosenfeld, and he literally quotes our passuk. And he says, the word Jacob uses for imagine, is “filalti” of the same root as the word hitpallel. Prayer is thus not only asking God for something, it is imagining, becoming, whom I’d like to become. So, he kind of combines the concept of imagining with this reflexology that we’ve been talking about. So, it’s imagining about myself. Prayer is envisioning myself becoming a greater person, and asking God for the divine assistance to help me get there. Now, I totally agree. On the one hand, I have to say that I was surprised how few people that talked about להתפלל, quoted our verse and understood our verse was saying something slightly differently. I love what he says, the only criticism that I would have is if you put it back into context. This was not a prayer about Jacob or Israel, envisioning himself becoming a greater person. This was a Jacob an Israel, saying, I never imagined, you know, my daughter married a guy whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. And the first time I met her, she says, I’ve taken every one of my grandchildren to Auschwitz. And I said, if you ever go, please take me. And she was in her 90s. And she says, I’m going, my kids weren’t even married then. We went with her. She went on a trip of survivors from a single town in Poland, I never knew this. Every town has a group of people all around the world survivors, and now more and more children of survivors who stick together. So not only was my wife and I, the only people who were not related to a survivor, we were the only people not related to this town. And she goes into Auschwitz and her grandchild, got his guitar inside. They said no musical instruments, he said, this is going to be an exception. And he played Ani Ma’amin. And then she spoke, and she says, the only thing that kept me alive, was that I one day, and I have no justification for why….  I imagined that there might be “you” that there might be children and grandchildren. And this is exactly what Joseph… what Israel is doing right now.

Adam Mintz  18:48

That’s an amazing story.

Geoffrey Stern  18:50

It came to my mind when I read it.

Adam Mintz  18:54

Oh my God, that’s exactly the story! Jacob, looking at his son and his grandchildren. And I never imagined…  If she knew how to say a devar Torah, she would have said this Dvar Torah. She’s saying exactly what Jacob said,

Geoffrey Stern  19:10

Trust me, she knew. But in any case, that doesn’t come out here. I would like to pursue a little bit further, this concept of imagining, but not in imagination that is necessarily introspective, not an imagination that says, oh, if I could become a better person, because that wasn’t the imagination she was talking about in Auschwitz. It was an imagination of just ….. call it a leap of faith, call it believing in something that’s not rational that has no basis but gives you hope. That’s the type of imagination I think that Jacob and Israel was talking about. And that’s the type of imagination I’d like to pursue in terms of prayer. Are you with me?

Adam Mintz  19:15

I’m with you. Let’s go

Geoffrey Stern  20:00

So I want to start with, the Maharal…. I don’t think I’ve ever quoted the Maharalo on the Madlik podcast, but the Maharal reads Isaiah, and Isaiah 56 says, I will bring them to my sacred mount, and let them rejoice in my house of prayer. And the Hebrew for House of Prayer is בְּבֵ֣ית תְּפִלָּתִ֔י. So now we have an additional problem. Now we have not only do we not totally understand what prayer is, but we’ve got to understand what God’s prayer is. Because it says, בְּבֵ֣ית תְּפִלָּתִ֔י as though it was…..  if I was Orthodox, I would say kivi’yachol (as if to say) “God’s prayer”. And so, then you have classic rabbinic tests asking, whence do we know that the Holy One praised be, he prays.  מנין שהקב״ה מתפלל  And one lesson that the Ayn Yaakov brings from here we learn that amazing Hasidic lesson that prayers from the mouth of Brabes, prayers from the pure, those are as valuable as any other prayers, because ultimately, they are the prayers of God. And that is one of the lessons that is quoted in the in the Eyn Yaakov which brings us down Berachot,  And there were others that asked the same question of how is it that God can pray, and this is when we get to the Maharal, in his book called The Be’er HaGolah, and it’s where he is defending and exploring what Judaism is. And he says that the key is that is prayer. שהוא לשון מחשבה. Prayer is a language of thought. So what unites the previous interpretations of prayer is to judge prayer is to hitpalel is to pray. He says, it all comes from a לשון מחשבה and he says that God is as much a thinker as we are, you could even say, and he adds one additional thing, he says that it is ומה שאמרו לשון זה ‘שהקב”ה מתפלל’, ולא אמרו ‘שהקב”ה חפץ’, או ‘מבקש’, דבר זה יתבאר בסמוך למה אמרו בזה הלשון דוקאe, it is audible Machshava if you will. It’s important, we’re finishing the book of Genesis today, we have to remember how the world was created. It was created by God thinking and God saying, so it’s almost creating reality. So in a sense, the interpretation of Palel to be imaginative comes back to what Herzl said .. If you imagine it…. it is no dream. it, and we’re hoping that God will pray and enunciate in a similar fashion. There’s this kind of reflexivity, which I think is captured in the word lehitpalel. But you know, it really started me thinking about what I find it most inspiring in synagogue when I think back to the times that I have prayed the best. It’s when I’ve heard a rabbi give a drasha that inspires me. And it’s typically right in front of Mussaf. And you hear this, this, drasha, this sermon, and it inspires the way you think. And then you move it into prayer. It reminds me of before a yoga class or a meditation with a leader will give you an intention….  will kind of stroke your imagination. Today, it’s cold out let’s think of this. Today this has happened in the world think of this. And it reminded me of the Mishnah in Berachot that says that in the earlier times the rabbi’s would spend an hour before they actually prayed. So they would focus their hearts toward their father in heaven. And it’s always translated as kavanah, which is intentionality. But I’m starting to think in terms of our imagination. It’s an intention that when we pray, we need to be thinking, imagining something. That’s how I took it this week. And what do you think? Do you think it matters what we imagine, or it’s the experience of allowing ourselves to imagine whatever we imagine? What dawned on me is that the struggle that we choose have that is represented in all the books that I described, that talk about the siddur, the set prayers, is that the prayers stay the same. But their intentions can be totally different. And I imagined these rabbis an hour before prayers, fixing their intentions for that day. And I think based on one’s intentions, the same prayer can be 360 degrees different. That’s what kind of It struck me as?

Adam Mintz 

Yeah, that’s a really sophisticated point, that prayer means something different, depending on where you are. That’s why the institution of the Amidah, actually makes prayer less than it really is. Right?

Geoffrey Stern

Yes, and no, You know, it’s kind of like a Rorschach test. What do you see in it today? What does that tell me about you, but I really felt that this hour before a prayer establishing one’s intention was a game changer. And it even reflects upon a little bit of the body language at the end of that Mishnah in Berachot. It says, You have to focus your hearts towards the Father in heaven. And if the king greets him, he should not respond to him. And even if a snake is wrapped on his heel, he should not interrupt. There’s almost that you move….you take those three steps forward, and you’re in a different space, your mind is in a different space.

Adam Mintz 

So it’s so funny. You’re talking about the three steps forward. In the introduction to the ArtScroll siddur, Rabbi Saul Berman, you talked about Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Saul Berman, who was the successor of Rabbi Riskin in Lincoln Square Synagogue. He wrote the introduction to the ArtScroll siddur. And he says that the most important part of the Amidah is the three steps forward, you’re supposed to take three steps into your own world. It’s a different world. That’s really a good a great idea.

Geoffrey Stern

And that’s totally amazing. So here’s what I did. I googled “imagination in prayer”. And I came up with Ignatius of Loyola who was the founder of the Jesuits. And there is a whole practice based on him in the source notes, but I am going to read you seven examples and seven ways he believes that you can use imagination in prayer. So he says, imagine the sights and sounds of a biblical story, either as an observant or as a participant in the scene. So the first is, again, exactly kind of what I was discussing before when you hear a great sermon, and he’s talking about feeding the hungry, that colors the way you pray. So think of a biblical story. He says to take inspiration from an object that sparks your imagination, focus on something, have a conversation with God is number three that kind of reminded me of the Bresovers, but definitely reminded me of this taking three steps forward as a sign of kind of meeting with God. Here’s a cool one….  4 imagine another person’s point of view. Ignatius suggests that we always try to put a good interpretation on another person’s actions. Can you imagine trying to step into somebody else’s mind as the reflexivity of the hitpalel? Then he talks about giving thanks. Bring to mind a series of pictures of people, relationships, communities, pets, or others, for whom you are grateful. He really focused on just this sense of what Jacob, Israel said he could not do. I couldn’t imagine it. And he’s saying, When you pray, try to just imagine somebody, and it will change your praise for the day. The he goes. Remember the Tzadikin…., he says saints. But remember that Tzadik… think of great people. The last, he says, let go of old images of God allow new ones to emerge. I mean, you know, you talk about trying to expand our horizons with prayer. This absolutely just blew me away that he was a religious thinker, that focused on combining imagination, with prayer, and what happens when you do that.

Adam Mintz 

That’s fantastic. That’s a great way to end the whole thing. It’s great that we started with Jacob, Jacob says, you know, he uses the word, the same word for prayer to mean imagine or think or contemplate or judge or whatever it is. And what we did is we showed how that same idea that same use of the word has kind of worked through the ages. And that the prayer that we have today, and like you said, the you know, the sermon or the drasha that we have today before Mussaf you know that that allows us to reflect a little bit better is really the same experience that Jacob had which is really beautiful. So you know, when we finish Vayetzei, we finished a book appreciate we worked really hard on it all the way since Bereshit. We say Hazak Hazak veHithazek. We should be strong, we should be strong, and we should strengthen one another. And we look forward to moving ahead. The book of Shemot it’s a whole different book Geoffrey, no more family now it’s all about the nation; nation-building. Next, thursday, I will be in transit. But Geoffrey has some treats and surprises for everybody. So enjoy. I look forward to catching up when I land. Shabbat Shalom, and enjoy the last parsha of the book of Bereshit.

Geoffrey Stern  32:28

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi and I just want to finish because in the pregame I said I was going to mention Harry Austryn Wolfson.

Adam Mintz 

Yeah, let’s hear

Geoffrey Stern 

I was reading an essay that he wrote called Escaping Judaism. And in it, he says many amazing things you can look in this source sheet, but he talks about our prayers. And he is not a religious Jew. He is a graduate of Slaboka. He is the most knowledgeable Jew in the ideas and in the history of ideas of Judaism. And he criticizes Reform Jews of his time for changing the prayer book. And he says, Do you not think that when Maimonides read about Mechay’yeh Hametim, about bringing the dead back to life….And he had a more sophisticated view of it, that he did not find it offensive. But and here’s where he talks about imagination. He says if you just change the word, where is the imagination? He calls them cowards. He says pray from a prayer book that has been written and stood the test of 2000 years and challenge your imagination to find new meaning in it. And that just blew me away.

Adam Mintz 

That is beautiful.

Geoffrey Stern 

So with that… Genesis if anything is imagination. We finish the book Rabbi, it’s been an absolute pleasure to do it with you. I wish you a nesiah Tova.

Adam Mintz 

You too and we look forward to doing it from the other side of the world a week from now. Shabbat Shaom.

Geoffrey Stern 

Thank you. And next time we speak, next Thursday, I hope to be in the Holy Land of Israel. And either I will do it alone or I will find somebody in Israel who wants to do it with me. But in the meantime, enjoy the last Parsha, the last portion of Bereshit. Shabbat Shalom to you all.

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Joseph and the Spirit of Capitalism

parshat vayeshev – genesis 39

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on December 15th 2022 on Clubhouse at. Joseph is the first and only biblical personality characterized as a success. With a nod to Max Weber who wrote the iconic socioreligious study; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, we take this opportunity to explore the Biblical and latter Rabbinic definition of financial and other success.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vayeshev. Joseph is the first and only biblical personality characterized as a success. With a nod to Max Weber who was one of the first sociologists who looked at religion’s effect on economic behavior, we take this opportunity to explore the Biblical and latter Rabbinic definition of financial and other success. So join us for Joseph and the Spirit of capitalism.


Well, welcome back to Madlik. And we are in an amazing parsha. We were talking about before the number of stories we’re in a real transition; Joseph comes on to the stage. He’s put in a pit he’s parlayed into a slave goes to Egypt. And as they say, the rest is history. It’s a real transition. You don’t know if he’s a model of the Jewish people going down into Egypt or the actual actor who brings them down. That is all fascinating. But I am going to focus today on just two verses, as I said, in the intro, that refer to Joseph in a fascinating way. In Genesis 39; 2-3 It says, God was with Joseph and he was a successful man, וַיְהִ֤י ה’ אֶת־יוֹסֵ֔ף וַיְהִ֖י אִ֣ישׁ מַצְלִ֑יחַ, and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. And when his master saw that God was with him, and that God lent success to everything, he undertook וַיַּ֣רְא אֲדֹנָ֔יו כִּ֥י ה’ אִתּ֑וֹ וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁר־ה֣וּא עֹשֶׂ֔ה ה’ מַצְלִ֥יחַ בְּיָדֽוֹ. So, for the first time, not only is Joseph considered a winner, a successful person, but it’s apparent through his success that God must be with him and moving forward into later stories. If you recall when Joseph is in jail again, the chief jailer did not supervise anything that was in Joseph’s charge. It says in Genesis 39, because God was with him. And whatever he did, God made successful בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר ה’ אִתּ֑וֹ וַֽאֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֖ה ה’ מַצְלִֽיחַ. Now, it’s not that the word Hatzlacha has success hasn’t been used before. But prior, it’s all with Eliezer by the way, the servant of Abraham, it wasn’t he that was successful. It was his deeds, what he was doing. So in Genesis 24, it says, The man, meanwhile stood looking at her silently wonder whether God had made his errand successful or not הַֽהִצְלִ֧יחַ ה’ דַּרְכּ֖וֹ אִם־לֹֽא, a successful path. A successful action is mentioned five times with Eliezer. But here we have the first time it’s mentioned about a person, Rabbi, do you think it’s significant?

Adam Mintz  03:39

Well, first of all, that’s a great little point that you make. That’s not a small point. That about Joseph, it’s always about the person. It’s always about Joseph. Joseph is bigger than life. Joseph is good looking. Joseph is successful, not his actions. It’s always about Joseph. Eliezer, the servant, you know, when you’re a servant, it’s never about you. It’s about what you do. That’s a very, very, very important point. Now, that’s what gets Joseph in trouble. By the way, you know, it’s all about Joseph. So therefore, the wife of Potiphar, keeps his eye on him, and then he gets sent to prison. So being that it’s always about Joseph is not always so good. But your point that you make is a very, very good point.

Geoffrey Stern  04:23

And it’s not that we haven’t had success, even if the word hasn’t been used before. Abraham was considered greatly successful. And it’s not as though that success has not reflected on God as the source of the success. God promised Abraham that he would bless him with riches and children. And sure enough, he did. But the point is, and I think this is critical, is that with Abraham, he was promised success from God. And you know, he goes down to Egypt with his wife. He says she’s my sister. Turns out she wasn’t. The Pharaoh is embarrassed gives him riches, he benefited by being blessed by God. I think what you’re seeing with Joseph is a slight nuanced, but ultimately critical paradigm shift. Because Joseph was successful. People saw the hand of God, I think that’s different.

Adam Mintz  05:23

Yeah, there’s no question that that is different. So, you’re making a double point. One is the difference between Joseph being successful, and Eliezer’s actions being successful, then what’s the outcome of Josephs being successful? That’s a second point.

Geoffrey Stern  05:39

Yes. And so I think also, I started by making the comparison to Max Weber’s, who wrote this amazing book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And he was a sociologist, but he believed that religious outlook could be responsible by how you engage in economics. And what I see here is, when we look at Joseph, you can’t but say that what he was successful at was material, mercurial things. He arrives, he’s hired by Potiphar who happens to be the sar of Shechita, the slaughterhouse king, and he arranges his house, and he makes him successful. We’re not talking about spiritual; we’re not talking about artistic success, we are definitely talking about a slave who has nothing by definition, he doesn’t control his own life. And he then shines by whoever he touches, whether it’s his first master, whether it’s his cellmate, whether ultimately, it’s Pharaoh, and the whole of Egypt, he makes material success. And through that they see, or at least the Bible sees God and believes that others see God’s through that. And I think that is, in fact, a profound statement of a religion, is it not?

Adam Mintz  07:18

I think that is a very good, really good point. Through that, to see God, that’s really what we’re looking for always, through people’s actions, that people should be able to see God. Because the problem is, is how do you see God? Right? You can see God directly. So, you go to see God through human action.

Geoffrey Stern  07:38

But it’s a particular type of action. It’s economics.

Adam Mintz  07:41

Isn’t that interesting, right? I mean, but it has to be through human action. It can’t be just seeing God that doesn’t mean it.

Geoffrey Stern  07:49

Yes. And to play devil’s advocate to drive the point home, that this doesn’t need to be the case, and that it should, in fact, surprise us, or at least put us at the edge of our chair. I could be quoting from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes, but I’ll quote the more popular, famous source for that theology, which is the New Testament. And in the New Testament, it says in Matthew, Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. We know about them that the early Christians were very similar to the Essenes, sell your possessions and give to the poor, they are commanded. They had everything in common. This literally comes out of what we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, about the Essenes. They sold property and possessions to give to everyone who had need. And finally, that there were no needy persons among them. Their paradigm was ….. you can call it if you have to tag it with a modern term socialism, but their paradigm was that there should be communal ownership, that we should get rid of poverty, and that would not actually see success of God in someone who made it in the economy. Even in the Sermon on the Mount, it says blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. So, it’s not a knee jerk that this is the case. I do think it right. It requires some further evaluation if in fact, I’m reading something into the text, or in fact, this is saying that at least there’s a thread; a strong thread in the Joseph story, that success means right, success means touched by the hand of God.

Adam Mintz  09:55

Well, it does. I mean, let’s just take a second you quoted the New Testament and you suggested correctly that some of the other groups during the Second Temple believed in poverty. You have to remember that the ruling class in Jerusalem, the Jewish ruling class in Jerusalem, they were called the Sadducees. And they were Kohanim. They were priests, but they were also wealthy. You know, in those days, everybody brought their gifts to the priests, because they thought the priests then would pray for them, and then they would be successful. So, the priests amassed a huge amount of wealth. So, if you were a group that was battling with the priests….  I’m talking, battling in terms of socially battling with the priest, you tended to reject well, because that’s what these people stood for, or at least that’s the way they were seen. So, the Essenes or the Dead Sea sect, moved out of Jerusalem, they lived in the Judean mountains. And literally, they lived in poverty, to show that wealth was not the answer. The early Christians, the Sermon on the Mount, the early Christians, they also where big believers in the fact that money was bad, right? Money was problematic, because they were fighting against the establishment. So that was interesting. Now, what’s really interesting is that after the destruction of the temple in 70, CE, the Sadducees, and the priests lost because there’s no temple, the priests have no significance. So even within kind of standard Judaism, traditional Judaism, the Pharisees, who were the rabbis who were not the wealthy class, the regular people, they also were victorious. So therefore, the idea of not being rich of fighting the rich was something that was very much an end of the Second Temple period. That was when that was familiar.

Geoffrey Stern  11:59

There’s a philosophy behind it. You know, I mentioned a second ago, that one of the aims of the New Testament and we might say by that the aim of the communal societies built in the Dead Sea, was to eradicate poverty. And we have in the Torah itself, when it talks about the rules of lending on interest when it talks about the issue of supporting those who don’t have it, it. It says in a very powerful verse in Deuteronomy 15: 11 there will never cease to be needy ones in your land. And this actually was the source of a confrontation, of a discussion that is captured in the Talmud, in Baba Batra 10a it has this amazing dialogue between Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus of famous Roman. And he asked him the following question. And he says, if God loves the poor, for what reason? Does he not support them? And Akiva said to him, so that through them we will be saved from the judgment of Gehena, in truly Jewish facts, fashion, tikkun olam fashion, Akiva says what God gave us the poor so that we could get the mitzvah of taking care of the poor. But Rufus is not finished yet. He says, No, let me tell you a parable; almost in like New Testament style. He says, let’s say that the King put away someone who he was angry at, he made him a slave, and he put them in prison. And he ordered that he should not be fed or given drink. And one person went ahead and fed him and gave him to drink. If the king heard about this, would he not be angry with that person? In other words, what he’s asking is, and this will pick up in Weber and the Protestants, where if you are poor, ….. the flip side of being blessed when you are rich, is that you must have done something wrong and you must be cursed if you are poor, and therefore you are travelling with God’s order, if you engage in that wonderful Jewish biblical dynamic of Tzedaka, of interest-free loans. That is literally the question that he’s posing to Akiva. If God wanted people to have money, he would have given it to them. You are playing God you are playing in this field. And that’s the question that he asks. And of course, Akiva gives him a wonderful answer, and says, first of all, the Jewish was people are not slaves were children. And if it was a child who the king had put in prison……  I won’t get into the answer you can figure it out. But what I loved is that the Talmud captures this schism, this dialogue, this dialectic between two totally opposite approaches to the power of the economy, to raise up those who don’t have the power of the economy, to favor those who have it. It really is fascinating, isn’t it?

Adam Mintz  15:36

Absolutely fascinating. The idea of power, the idea of being connected to people with power, see, there are actually two things, you know, they always say it’s good to be, it’s good to have wealth, or it’s good to have power. And if you can’t have power, you should be connected to someone who has power or wealth. Right? So that’s really what that story’s about, you know, do you have the power yourself or you’re connected to somebody with power? So that’s interesting when you get back to the Joseph story, is that Joseph himself is all of these things. But actually, he’s not any of these things. Because he’s a nobody, he’s a slave. The reason he’s successful is because he somehow, by chance, gets purchased by Potiphar, then he goes to jail, and he’s a nobody, but somehow the Sar Ha mashkin remembers him. And then he goes in front of Pharaoh, that’s crazy. This slave, you know, this slave goes in front of Pharaoh, how can I possibly be I think it comes viceroy over Egypt. So sometimes it’s not who you are, but how you’re connected to that person.

Geoffrey Stern  16:41

 Well, I mean, you could easily make the case that he is the personification of the entrepreneur who pulls himself up from his own bootstraps. Again, I’m using economic terms. But here’s somebody who is not part of the right caste. He’s not part of the white guild, he literally is, is designed to be someone who’s pulled from the pit. And he is a prototype, he is a paradigm of being blessed by God. And he is a role model because of it. Like I said, there doesn’t appear again, in the whole Torah, the word Ish Matzliach. A successful man, it’s kind of fascinating.

Adam Mintz  17:29

That is a fascinating point. And the fact that the word matzliach is used elsewhere, but it’s used in a different context that makes your point even stronger.

Geoffrey Stern  17:40

So we’ve talked a little bit about this challenge to economic theory of how do you deal with the have-nots? Are they cursed? Or are they a responsibility of enlightened capitalism to bring up but this other thing about? Are they responsible? Because they’re cursed by God? Or are they our responsibility as part of the organic and the, the invisible hand of the economy. So in Proverbs 13, which, by the way, is Wisdom literature, so it could appear, it’s not Torah in the sense that it really contains the real Jewish covenant and all that. But it says, Poverty and humiliation are for him who spurns discipline, but he who takes reproof to heart gets on honor. So there is this sense of the Benjamin Franklin adage .. early to be, early to rise makes a man healthy and wise. Weber quotes Franklin all the time as the prototype of the Protestant capitalist, and for good reason. It comes right out of the common sense approach Wisdom Literature which we have also. it’s this doubled edge sword. . On the one hand, having wealth, making wealth is blessed… and on the hand it’s the responsibility of the haves to support the have nots… so i think that one of the lessons of today’s episode is that it’s not black and white. It’s a mixed bag. And in that sense, I think that it’s not pure capitalism, but maybe one could call it enlightened or modified capitalism.

Adam Mintz  19:50

Okay, I think that’s fair. I mean, you’re putting nuance into it. And I think that’s only the right thing to do because the Torah doesn’t know about capitalism. The way we talk about capitalism in the 21st century, and I think that’s an important point to make. It means we talk about Ish Matzliach, but the jump from Ish Matliach to Weber is not a direct jump. I think that’s an important point to make.

Geoffrey Stern  20:13

So we’re gonna get a little bit more into Weber in a second, but he had a cohort because Weber’s, really, maybe he was a self-hating Jew. But he gave the Protestants all the credit for launching capitalism, a free market economy, a wage economy, what he referred to in terms of the biblical economy. He called it pariah capitalism. And of course, he was using the old adage of the Jew is not a producer. He’s a middleman. He’s a trader. He doesn’t actually contribute to society. And the fascinating thing about our parsha is that we do have this little side story of Judah, Yehuda and Tamar, and in it, it says something kind of fascinating. It says there Yehuda saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua and he took her in as his wife and cohabited with her. Rashi says, Canaanite means a merchant. The Jews, the Israelites, who were the landed gentry in the Promised Land, and had displaced the Canaanites and made them into the pariahs refer to them almost in a derogatory way, as merchants, for those of you who have ever heard the wonderful, beautiful song, a Woman of Valor that we sing every Friday night, in it, we say, סָדִ֣ין עָ֭שְׂתָה וַתִּמְכֹּ֑ר וַ֝חֲג֗וֹר נָתְנָ֥ה לַֽכְּנַעֲנִֽי that the woman of value makes cloth and sells it, and offers a girdle. And now I’m using the English translation to the merchant. So literally, the Canaanite was considered by the landed Jews as the merchant, this is a time honored tradition in putting down the trader as not being productive. And that kind of struck me too. Just a fascinating aside, but maybe not so much an aside side, because clearly, Jewish Finance and Jewish working of markets and arbitrage has added a lot of value, but it has always been an Achilles heel.

Adam Mintz  22:50

I mean, I think that’s right. I mean, your kind of pulling all the different things together. But of course, it’s all true. And I think that, you know, that’s an interesting thing to do that and to understand that this idea of being an issue, I mean, let’s say it like this, let’s say it as a Devar Torah, right, being an Ish Matzliach is a marker that has identified Jews throughout the centuries. And it’s identified Jews in different ways. Sometimes, you know, it’s a compliment. You know, they say Koreans want to learn Hebrew, because they want to be like the Jews, because they see the Jews are so successful, they want to be like the Jewish Matzliach. They want to be an Ish Matzliach but at the same time, many anti Semites use the fact that we’re an Ish Matzliach we do something wrong to be an Ish Matzliach. So it’s so interesting that that way of identifying Jews is something that’s followed us throughout the centuries, both for good and for bad.

Geoffrey Stern  23:55

Yeah, absolutely. I just want to quote this Werner Sombart who would die in 1941. He wrote, he argued that Jewish traders and manufacturers excluded from the guilds developed a distinctive antipathy to the fundamentals of medieval commerce, which they saw as a primitive and unprogressive the desire for just and fixed wages and prices for an equitable system in which shares of the market were agreed upon exchanging. He uses this Canaanite, he uses this merchant class as literally the source of capitalism. But what’s fascinating is, if we just start back at the comment, you just made in terms of Ish Matzliach. If you listen to some of the barbs that are being flowing, being thrown at the Jewish people, you know, call it “they run Hollywood”. They run this …it’s almost as though success is considered a crime.  It really takes the argument very much back to this biblical sense that we’re talking about is it something that means that we should be proud of. If you remember Rabbi, when we had a my friend, the Reverend  Dumisani Washington on and we were talking about and I said to him, What is the challenge of the successful Jew? And he said, You know, I love it when my Jewish brothers and sisters at the Seder lean to the side, and take happiness with the fact that they were redeemed, they are proud of it. And he says that we African Americans have to be proud of what we’ve achieved. We were robbed of our culture; we were robbed of our gods. We were robbed of our names, and we became literate in one generation. I love that and I really think it’s sensitizing us to Hatzlacha; success clearly, in in Josef’s case, and in the Bible’s case, there is a very strong part of it that is considered something to be proud of, and something touched by God. And I think that’s a timely conversation.

Adam Mintz  26:10

That’s a very timely conversation. By the way, you don’t know how Joseph feels about being successful, it kind of goes to his head, and then he gets in trouble. So that idea that Ish Matzliach does well for Joseph, I think is complicated.

Geoffrey Stern  26:29

So that’s an amazing segue into Max Weber. Because what Max Weber’s argues is that what really launched Protestantism, Calvinism, in particular, as the source of American – western capitalism, was that when the Roman Catholic Church was involved, it was in charge of salvation, and everybody knew where they stood. But once it was rejected, they looked for other signs that they were saved. And Calvin and his followers taught a doctrine of double predestination, in which from the beginning, God shows some people for salvation, and others for damnation. And they translated that into a belief that one who’s chosen for salvation, is successful. And they really you read it, and you start to see echoes of modern day thought of the argument against welfare, where they literally as Rufus said, that the those who work hard should not give their money to prop up those who don’t have, it’s really kind of fascinating, but to your point of Joseph having trouble with retaining his equanimity and retaining his happiness in life. Weber goes, so far to talk about the humility and the asceticism of the real capitalists, we are kind of in in this sense of reinvesting and compounding interest, where you don’t spend your money on luxury, where you don’t stop working, everything is the opportunity cost. If I’m not working, I’m losing money. And that ultimately, Weber points out how then it became almost an idolatry. So it goes the whole nine yards, so to speak. But it’s a fascinating insight to me. The amount that a theology that a religion can affect something as basic as how we do economics, and how we control and are affected by markets that I thought was absolutely fascinating.

Adam Mintz  28:54

I mean, it is fascinating, but so much of religion depends on economics means how you give a sacrifice, you know, who had animals to give a sacrifice, probably not very many people. The Torah actually has a sliding scale for sacrifices, depending on how wealthy you are. If you gave an animal or you were able to give birds or even, you’re able to give them a meal offering. Isn’t that an interesting thing when you talk about wealth, and you talk about economy is in a sliding scale for sacrifices, something that’s amazing. Now, I never did research on this. I don’t know whether other religions had a sliding scale. But I would imagine that they did. Because if you don’t have a sliding scale for sacrifices, you can never have sacrifices because nobody could afford it.

Geoffrey Stern  29:41

And at the end of the day, you got to be able to pay your bills,

Adam Mintz  29:47

That’s a big part of it.

Geoffrey Stern  29:49

So we’ve quoted from philosophers sociologists from the New Testament, the Old Testament, but I think we have to go to the ultimate golden source and of course there is no more golden source than Fiddler on the Roof. And if I want to be a rich man, and so in that song reading from the lyrics, I really do believe it captures some real essences of the Jewish approach. And it says, you know, I realize, of course, it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either. And he goes, if I was a rich man, he said, I would be able to pose problems that would cross a rabbi’s eye, and it won’t make one difference if I answer right or wrong, when you’re rich, they think you really know. if I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray and maybe have a seat by the eastern wall. And I discuss the holy books with the learned men several hours every day. And that would be the sweetest thing of all……  I really think he touches on many big categories, right? Yeah, it’s absolutely amazing. And I think that the key takeaway that I always took from that we can have another discussion on the fact that a wealthy person somehow got to the point where no matter what he says, The Rabbi’s considered right or wrong…. I think that gets back to who’s pays for the sacrifices that you talked about a second ago. But I think what really rings true is this contract that was made between having money and having the time to learn, and that gets back to something very basic this Yisachar and Zebulin  contract where one tribe was seafaring and worked and the other studied, but they always had to be someone to pay the bills. And you know, in getting really local to Israel. Now when you have people studying, and they can’t pay the bills, or when you have a society that only focuses on the study. They have to remember אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה, and  אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה   (If there’s no worldly occupation there’s no Torah, if there’s no bread , there’s no Torah) these are part of it. It is a full economic system. And I think it really does affect the Jewish success story in a profound way. And someone needs to write the book, Joseph and the Spirit of Capitalism, because it really is a very strong, I think, profound impact that the Jews have made that it’s made on us and that we have made on the world.

Adam Mintz  32:26

Fantastic. I’m looking forward to the book. Shabbat Shalom everybody, this is a great discussion. Enjoy your Shabbos and enjoy your Hanukkah happy Hanukah everybody. We look forward next week to talk about miketz and Hanukkah and a whole bunch of other things. Have a great week everybody Shabbat Shalom,

Geoffrey Stern  32:43

Shabbat shalom. All of you do not have a problem enjoying your Hanukkah Gelt. It’s okay. We Jews know how to handle money. Just turn to Yosef. So Shabbat shalom. Thank you, Rabbi once again. We’ll see you all next week. Have a lichtika Hanukkah, a Hanukkah, full of illumination in light. And look forward to seeing you all next week.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

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The Conversion Factor

parshat vayishlach – genesis 36

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on clubhouse on December 8th 2022. An innocuous reference to a princess named Timna teaches us a profound lesson regarding the potential of converts to positively affect Judaism. We explore the lenient opinion of conversion in Rabbinic texts with one of its leading practitioners…. our very own Rabbi Adam Mintz.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach.  An innocuous reference to a Princess named Timna teaches us a profound lesson regarding accepting potential converts and how critical such a choice can be to the future of Judaism. We are oh so fortunate to be able to explore the lenient opinion of conversion in Rabbinic texts with one of its leading practitioners…. our very own Rabbi Adam Mintz. So join us for The Conversion Factor.


Usually before we start Rabbi, I ask you how was your week and you say, oh, it was a great week, I converted three people or it was a slow week, we had no conversions this week. But this week, I didn’t ask you that in the pregame show, because I wanted to focus on exactly that amazing service you are providing to our Jewish people and the model that you’re setting. But we’re hopefully going to get into some of the Talmudic. Rabbinic and even biblical source material that I believe in a very, very strong and powerful way, supports what you’re doing. So I’m gonna let you do most of the talking, but I am going to tie it in to the parsha. And I must say that we have a faithful listener or two who are privy to these pregame conversations. And they begged me one day, you’ve got to tie into the conversation, an interview of Rabbi Adam Mintz explaining his position on conversion. So here we are, in Genesis 36, is in innocuous reference to Timnah. And it comes in the middle of one of those rambling genealogies of this one begat this one and this one begot this one, and it says Timnah was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz. Those were the descendants of Esau’s wife Adah. And the Talmud in Sanhedrin 99b recounts that there was once a very evil king of Israel named Manasseh. And he was explaining why he rejected the Torah, and as prime evidence of the irrelevance and the lack of import that he gave to the Torah. He quoted our verse and the list of genealogy that he said had absolutely no meaning at all. And the rabbis came back and they said, actually, there’s a hell of a lot of meaning to this text. And they taught based on this one innocuous text, a whole Midrashic story. And the Midrashic story says as follows that timidness sought to convert. She came before Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and they did not accept her. She went and became a concubine of Eliphaz, son of a Esau and said, it is preferable that I will be a maidservant for this nation, and not be a noble woman for another nation. So, this princess married “down” and she married into the Jewish people see, so much wanted to join us. And ultimately, of course, those of you who are in tune to Jewish history, listen to that word of Amalek. And you know that he is the nemesis of the Jewish people. And the rabbi’s learned that therefore, because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not accept Timnah as a convert. That Amalek was the punishment; he emerged from her and afflicted the Jewish people. And what is the reason? Because the Jewish people were punished by Amalek due to the fact that they should not have rejected her. So here you have it, Rabbi, we are commanded to accept the Convert. And if we don’t we do it at risk of creating a terrible nemesis, and I assume you can make the converse argument and say that if we do, we have the potential of having an amazing addition to our people. So now let me turn to you and ask you to give us a sense of your journey into what you are now doing, which is really converting so many people. Describe what your journey was, and are what you’re doing at this time.

Adam Mintz  05:15

Okay, thanks a lot. That’s a great, a great story. The Timnah story, we’ll come back to that. And I’ll tell you that I began my rabbinic career, really, as the assistant rabbi in KJ (Kehilat Jeshurun) , to Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. And Rabbi Haskel Lookstein the rabbi of KJ, and the principle of Ramaz, he was very forward-looking in terms of his attitude towards the entire Jewish people. And he understood even back in the early 1990s, that conversion was something that really needed to be addressed. Generally, Orthodox rabbis didn’t address conversions. In the 1990s, we we’re still living in a generation where there weren’t that many Orthodox Jews who married people whom they wanted to convert. So, it was something that happens all the time, but it did happen. And in KJ, they had something called the beginners service, which was founded started by George Rohr. And actually, the beginner service was a service for people who didn’t have background. And the beginner service turned out to attract not only people who were exploring a path to conversion, but also people who are exploring a path to conversion, that was a good introductory kind of service for them. So, I learned from Rabbi Lookstein really the importance of conversion and I would study with a convert and then Rabbi Lookstein would lead the conversion Bet Din that we would have at the at the Mikveh on the Upper West Side. And I continued that kind of on and off over the years. And when I was a rabbi in Lincoln Square Synagogue, they had less conversion, interestingly, for whatever reason. But then when I founded my own shul Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim for a reason that I can’t exactly put my finger on, other than the fact that orthodoxy does not have a good conversion kind of official conversion program. People were seeking out ways to explore Judaism and potentially to convert. And I began to convert people…  first slowly, and then over time, and then for whatever reason, over COVID, the number of conversions really exploded. So, what did I do this week? This week, I didn’t do much. Because next week, next Tuesday, we’re converting 17 people, that’s a pretty amazing thing. That means 17 people who studied and I’m going to tell you a story, just to kind of put it all in perspective, something that happened just today 17 People who studied who came to Judaism, whatever it is, they are going to come to the mikvah. Why do I say whatever it is. Today, I was actually riding in an Uber to a wedding. And someone texted me and then I called them up. It was a woman who was born in Soviet Russia. And she left in 1989 when she was four years old. She came here, she’s an MD. She’s an ophthalmologist. And she called me because now that she’s, you know, she that she’s considering getting married. She said that she always grew up as as, as Jewish, and so much so she actually when she they came to the United States, she went to a Jewish school in Los Angeles, a Conservative Day School in Los Angeles. She became to realize over time, that her mother’s mother, her grandmother, which is the side that that matters, that there was no record about whether or not she was Jewish. Part of the issue in Russia is that they didn’t have proper documentation. And she’s concerned that she’ll have a problem. But most importantly, their children someday would have a problem because they can’t prove that their maternal side is completely Jewish. She wanted to convert. Now, here’s a woman who grew up Jewish, she’s always thought she was Jewish. She practiced Judaism. She observed Shabbos. She goes to a conservative shul, she is part of the Jewish community. But there’s a little technicality that she grew up in Russia. So, on Tuesday, she’s joining the group that’s going to convert and that’s like an amazing thing that here this woman, I mean, this morning, I didn’t know her, she got my name from someone else I converted. But there are story after story after story of different kinds of situations of people who you know, who want to join the Jewish people who really are a part of the Jewish people. There are so many different kinds of stories. And need to be well documented, lacks community. I mean, that’s, that’s really for another discussion. But I think that, you know, within each denomination, there are certain, you know, requirements about what it means to be become part of the Jewish community. But once you become part of the Jews, we know, but once people express that desire, I think we need to be much more welcoming to it’s a kind of urge that has been the tradition over the over the generations, very much in the spirit of that membership.

Geoffrey Stern  10:38

That’s amazing. So when I told you the subject matter, I knew that you gave the tikun Leyl Shavuot class at the JCC of Manhattan. And I do want to hear maybe a little bit later what you’re doing at the JCC of Manhattan. But I asked you for your source sheet and you have a source sheet, Conversion: Is it good for the Jews, and in it, you quote, a Rabbi Eliezer Malamud. And I went ahead and googled him. And there’s an amazing article. And I implore all of you who are interested in the subject; In the source sheet on Sefaria that I’ve linked to our clubhouse, there are many amazing sources that all relate to the issues that we’re going to be discussing. But in it was a translation of an article written by this Eliezer Malamud who looks as Hasidic and religious and Haredi, a Jew as you’d ever want to see. And it’s called the Lenient Opinion of Conversion. So, I mentioned that in our intro, and I said, you were a practitioner of same. So maybe you can sketch out for us what the basic requirements are. And then where there is an opportunity to be lenient, assuming that you agree with the term.

Adam Mintz  11:54

Good. So I do. And I think this is a very important discussion. So, someone who wants to convert to Judaism needs to go to the mikvah. And for a male, they need to be circumcised. Now, many people in the Western world, many men are circumcised already. So, then they just need a ceremonial, just taking a little a little drop of blood. But those two things are requirements. And that’s why we do the conversions always at the mikvah. In addition, the Talmud says, they need to accept Judaism. And the question is what that means to accept Judaism. So, the traditional orthodox view has always been and this is one of the sources on the source sheet that you sent around says that converts are problematic, they’re like a scab, right? You know, hey fester. And because they don’t really accept Judaism, they kind of accept it only halfway. And that’s a serious problem. But I don’t believe that that’s so. I think what the Talmud means is that you only accept people for conversion, who are willing to embrace Judaism. And people embrace Judaism in different ways. And the journey of Judaism is something that people embrace in different ways. And I want to include, I want to give people the opportunity to become Jewish, as long as they’re willing to participate in the journey of Judaism. I think we’re all part of that journey, right? Anybody who tells you they’re not on a journey. That’s a big problem. Every Jew needs to be on a journey.

Geoffrey Stern  13:40

Absolutely. So, I think it’s safe to say that that the where the wiggle room is, is in that third requirement, the Mikvah that’s easy anyway, it’s purifying, it’s a rebirth. The circumcision is our branding; our sign, but it’s the acceptance of the commandments, correct me if I’m wrong, where you really have something that’s open to interpretation, and even the text that you quoted, that compares converts to a Tzorat to a blemish, there are explanations that say because they take it too seriously. That’s one explanation.

Adam Mintz  14:22

There are seven different explanations of what that means, what the blemish means. And basically, half of them say a blemish is bad, and half of them say a blemish is good. So, whatever you want that line to say you can find someone who explains it that way.

Geoffrey Stern  14:37

So I looked at the Hebrew and it says שֶׁרֻבָּן חוֹזְרִין בִּשְׁבִיל דָּבָר that converts are difficult for the Jewish people to bear as a leprous blemish and then the English translation is “for most converts convert for an ulterior motive”  בִּשְׁבִיל דָּבָר because of something and one of the things that I was always brought up as kind of being beyond question is that you can’t convert for an ulterior motive. And of course, the most important, the most typical ulterior motive is a couple falls in love. And one of them is Jewish and the other isn’t. And they decide that they want to have a house where the children are raised in one culture, one religion, there’s love there, all of those different things could be construed as ulterior motives, but the Talmud doesn’t say, and therefore they’re not converts. It says, that every convert converts funnel to your motive. So, the truth is, it is almost baked in that we’re not expecting some person to come who’s walking on the road and has a vision… an epiphany

Adam Mintz  15:52

Like Paul of Tarsis.

Geoffrey Stern  15:52

and converts to Judaism. For no reason other than the sublime. I think that’s fascinating, a fascinating diyuk, a fascinating insight into בִּשְׁבִיל דָּבָר, that everybody has got a reason for joining our people. And there’s nothing wrong with that reason,

Adam Mintz  16:11

There’s nothing wrong with that, I’ll even go further than that, I can just tell you, that it’s the people who have an ulterior motive that people who are in relationships or have families already, those are the conversions that tend to be more committed to Judaism. Because if you have an ulterior motive, if you have a family, if you have a partner, whatever the case may be, that just makes it better. Now, it is ironic, and any rabbi who deals in conversion will tell you that what happened, what often happens is, is you have somebody who, you know, is kind of marginally traditional, you know, and their partner is going through a conversion process. What often happens is, is the partner who’s going through the conversion process ends up more Jewishly traditional than the Jewish partner, because they spent a year studying and all those things, and they get excited about it. So, they tend to make the Jewish partner even more religious. So, you know, having an ulterior motive actually works in a very interesting kind of way these days.

Geoffrey Stern  17:12

Absolutely. And then the truth is, like everything else in Judaism, the more you look at the sources, the more you see that it’s all there. In other words, there is a very famous source in Yevamot 47b, which says that, when a potential convert comes in front of the judges, who say to him, what did you see that motivated you to come to convert, and they inform him of some of the lenient Mitzvot and some of the stringent Mitzvot? What is the reason to say this to Him so that if he is going to withdraw from the process, let him withdraw already at this stage. So, the way this Talmud translated to me in my youth, was this myth of tell them three times to go away, push them away, and make it sound like this is the worst religion to join. what it’s really saying here is in a very kind of subtle way, you want him to be self-qualifying, you give them a sense of some of the smaller Mitzvot, some of the larger ones, you don’t overwhelm him with 613. But that’s all that it really says. And then the Convert shall join himself with them. And so, cleave to the house of Jacob. And this gets to something that I think is fascinating. The punch line is the Mitzvot are one thing, but the real accents of conversion is joining our people, are these two different pathways that we have somehow focused on keeping the commandments and less focused on what Ruth the ultimate convert says, which we say never said anything about keeping the commandments. She says, wherever you go, I will go Your God is my God.

Adam Mintz  19:08

So, the truth is, that it really depends like a lot of things in life. what your perspective is, before you start, if you want to accept a convert, or converts generally, then the model for accepting the Convert is what Ruth said,כִּ֠י אֶל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֵּלְכִ֜י אֵלֵ֗ךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּלִ֙ינִי֙ אָלִ֔ין עַמֵּ֣ךְ עַמִּ֔י וֵאלֹהַ֖יִךְ אֱלֹהָֽי your people are my people, and your God is my God. If your tendency is to be afraid of converts, and you know that tendency is a kind of old-fashioned tendency, which says that Orthodoxy is fine where it is. Orthodoxy has enough people that we what we would rather is quality over quantity, I would rather have a fewer number of really solidly Orthodox people than a lot of people who are kind of wishy washy about their orthodoxy. Now that sounds kind of silly, especially you and I We were brought up by Rabbi Riskin, I mean Rabbi Riskin would either laugh or be angry at that description that, quality over quantity. Of course, that’s not true. That’s not what we believe. We want as many people to be Jewish, you know, who want to be Jewish, we’re not, you see, we’re not a proselytizing religion, this is a, it’s a little bit of a nuance, but it’s an important point to make, we don’t go out and look for people to convert, these people come to us. And that’s, of course, true. I never, ever send out an email and say, if you want to convert, you know, here we here we go, you know, we joined the Jewish people were, were the ones were the chosen ones, I would never do that. But people come to you the question is, are you embracing? Or do you push them away? So, the traditional orthodox view has been to push them away, I’m telling you, that this is not so well known that I work in this and I can tell you that within the more right-wing Orthodox world, slowly, there is there is a need for conversion. And you’re not surprised to hear that you have plenty of very orthodox people who have jobs, you know, in the financial world and the legal world, in the medical world. And every in every field in the computer world, every field and you’re going to meet people who aren’t Jewish. That’s just what happens. And sometimes it’s going to lead to a relationship that needs a conversion. I believe that 20 years from now, every family is going to somehow be connected to a conversion.

Geoffrey Stern  21:36

If we’re not already, I mean, how many Jews coming out of Egypt had blue eyes and freckles? That’s what I want to know.

Adam Mintz  21:43

You know, what my wife would say is that I’m not really being fair, because I say 20 years, but that’s I don’t really believe that what I really believe is five years from now, every family will have a connection to going to a conversion. And that’s probably right. Because if you assume that we’re converting, let’s say, so this month, December, we will have converted 25 people. So that’s about 300 people for the year, it without taking it from the year of 2022, we’ll take it from September to September, because kind of the conversion classes work from you know, from holiday to holiday. So that’s about 300 people convert not 300 people, let’s assume that most of those people have a partner, let’s assume that of those 300 people 200, that people have a partner. And that means that they’ll have a partner and they’ll have a family. So all of a sudden, let’s imagine again, it just making things up just making up data, because it’s easy to do that, right? You have someone who converts who marries a Jew, they have two children. So all of a sudden from those 300 people who convert in, you know, women between 2022 and 2023, you now have 4 members of a Jewish family. And you know, so that’s already, that’s already, you know, 800 people, and then take it from there and see what the numbers are gonna be over the course of time everybody’s gonna be connected to a convert.

Geoffrey Stern  23:05

So, we started by talking about this concept, this this traditional phrase that says that converts are like a leprosy and the Talmud goes on to say, just to here’s the prime example, the, the sin of the golden calf, they worshipped an idol, because they had accepted idol worshipers, whether it was the עֵרֶב רַב this mixed multitude, or simply other converts. And one of the sources that I bring is by Shai Cohen, who talks about the origins of conversion and Matrilineal descent, and he writes:, “The foreign woman who married an Israelite husband was supposed to leave her gods in her father’s house, but even if she did not, it never occurred to anyone to argue that her children were not Israelites. Since the idea of conversion to Judaism did not yet exist …it never occurred to anyone to demand that the foreign woman undergo some ritual to indicate her acceptance into the religion of Israel.” And that just brought me back to last week’s Pasha. When Rachel brought the household gods the Terraphim of her father, here we have a prime example of Jacob going to the land of a more and bringing this this beautiful wife with him, that became a role model, a beacon for the Jewish people, but she might have had a little Christmas tree in the back of the closet type of thing. His point is that the rabbi’s understood that when you take somebody from a totally different tradition as well, meaning as they are, there’s always going to be a little bit of baggage, but that was never disqualifying. And that too, is baked in to that statement that says that converts I have that baggage, they have a little bit of scare tissue, but it doesn’t say they’re not converts. So, it really is very understanding that we all come with our baggage. And I think the way we started with Timnah said that maybe that baggage is good…  the potential for….  and there are the rabbis who take our lesson that we started with that said, because we did not accept Timnah, she created a Amalek. They flip it on its head, and they said, and therefore when we do take in a convert, they might have a little residue, but their children and their grandchildren might be the next Onkelos, might be the next translator, who can translate the Torah for a new generation of Jews.

Adam Mintz  25:47

So that something that we haven’t discussed yet, and that is what the converts bring to our community. That’s something that the sociologists are just beginning to think about. But think about it, right? You don’t have people from different backgrounds. It creates a really rich Jewish community. You know, the rabbi of central synagogue, Rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl I don’t know exactly what her story is. She’s half Korean, is that correct? Is she a convert her mother’s a convert? Whatever the case may be. There’s there is some conversion in that family. And look what she brings. She was America’s rabbi, right. She was the rabbi who the guy from Texas called, you know, when they were taken hostage. But she’s, she’s an extremely important rabbi, she leads, you know, hundreds, if not 1,000s of congregates in central synagogue in New York. And she comes from a Korean family. So, it’s interesting to consider what they bring to the table, which is exactly your point about who the next Onkelos is going to be.

Geoffrey Stern  26:56

And it’s not as though so many times when we look at our tradition, as moderns, as children of the 22nd century, we have to really say, are we projecting Oh, are we not projecting? Was it there? Was it not there? But I believe if you look at the sources, if you look at the early sources, obviously there was a very small gene pool. So besides not marrying the Canaanites, there had to be intermarriage. But there are so many tribes, the Kutim and the others that joined it’s just full of these stories. But in the Talmud, itself, it goes out of its way to really show that this discussion, the lenient or the stringent approach to conversion lived in the School of Shammai in the School of Hillel, you know, the famous story in the tractate of Shabbat 31a, where A non-Jew comes to Shammai, and he says, convert me on condition that I only believe in the written law, not in the oral law, and Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. He came to Hillel and gave the same condition. And Hillel accepted him and started teaching him the Torah Aleph beit gimel. dalet and obviously when they got to actually reading the text, and it came to a loss, such as the Mezuzah, and Hillel says, so what do you do you write it on the doorpost? Or do you write it on a scroll? And the convert says, well, how do you know he says, Well, that’s where tradition comes in. And then of course, the more famous story is where another convert comes to Shammai. And he says, Teach me the Torah on one foot. And you could say he was almost mocking Judaism. And that’s certainly the way Shammai took it. But Hillel took it in a totally different way. And he took it as a challenge. And he gave him back a peyrush, an interpretation of Love thy neighbor as thyself. He said, Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want done to you. And the rest is commentary. It makes us stronger. It makes us more insightful and more profound when we are exposed to other traditions, at least in the house of Hillel.

Adam Mintz  29:21

Yeah, well, I mean, that those stories are more about, you know, Hillel versus Shammai. They use conversion as an example of it. But it shows that Hillel was the embracer while Shammai pushed people away, and you know, and of course, that’s an important point when it comes to conversion. And it’s important point when it comes to a lot of things. But I think that model of Hillel, and that model of Timnah, or the lesson that you get from Timnah, I think that that has to really be our approach. I’m one of the sources that you included in the source sheet was a discussion they had in the 1,800s in Germany, you know, in Germany, the assimilation rate intermarriage rate was very high because Jews had become citizens for the first time they were exposed to the German world, obviously was long before the Holocaust long before the Nazis. And the Jews wanted to become Germans. They wanted to intermarry with Germans. And what you had was you had situations where Jewish men were married to non-Jewish women. So, the children were not Jewish. But the fathers wanted the boys circumcised. And they went to the rabbis and they asked, can we have the boys circumcised? That’s an interesting question, because the boys aren’t Jewish. And there were some rabbis and I quote those rabbis there Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer. But there were others who said, yes, you should circumcise the boys, because give them a chance, who knows what will be if they’re not circumcised at birth? So the idea of circumcision, when you’re adult is very difficult, and people are not going to want to do that. But if you circumcise them at birth, so then there’s a chance maybe they’ll come around, that was such a modern view that he took in the 1,840s. Can you imagine that mean, today, they would argue about whether that view is acceptable or not, and Rabbi Kalischer who was willing to accept that view, and 1,840, which is really an amazing thing.

Geoffrey Stern  31:07

And it and it really speaks to this sense of Timnah. You never know as Shlomo Carlebach used to say, you never know what happens when you plant the seed. You never know when you when you plant a tree. And I think that ultimately is also part of this question of being able to accept converts, you’re able to accept a future that you might not know totally what’s going to happen. I mean, I think at the end of the day, to me, the real discussion is not between so much leniency and stringency, as much as it is between status and identity, you know, so many of us. You can maybe put this into Shammai’s mouth, he wasn’t interested in converting in the sense of changing something moving forward, he was interested in identifying, he was interested in determining Is this someone who will get the status or not, and I think more and more of who we are today is identity. And that in a sense, is very much in line with all of these conversations that we come in the Talmud that have less to do with accepting all 613 commandments, but identifying with a people, when I went to Cuba on a JDC trip, I was amazed because it was a communist country, they were very sensitive about proselytizing, about using religion to try to bring people in. Community was very big, there was the Catholic community in the Jewish community. So, if somebody went on that road to Tarshish and had an epiphany, they would not accept them. But if someone fell in love with a member of the community and wanted to join it, that was actually the only appropriate way to convert. And I think that kind of identified the real paradigm shift that we need to make in terms of what conversion is, it’s people that want to identify with the Jewish people. And, boy, we need as many people who want to identify with us and help us identify and grow ourselves, I think,

Adam Mintz  33:22

I think you’re 100% Right. It’s really, thank you so much for identifying that Midrash about Timnah and to have this conversation about conversion. It really Geoffrey has been a conversation that’s been waiting to happen because w we’ve kind of talked around it so many times. It’s nice to really talk about it. And obviously this is just the first step we maybe will be able to find a Midrash somewhere else that will be able to take it to the next level. So, thanks for bringing this up. Thanks for everybody for joining us. As always enjoy the Parsha, Parsaht Vayishlach, have a Shabbat Shalom and next week we move on with Parshat Vayeshev. Be well everybody

Geoffrey Stern  33:57

And normally Rabbi, I thank you for being part of Madlik. But today I thank you for being you and for doing what you’re doing in on the ground and making the Jewish people richer for it. So Hazak V’ematz. Thank you all for being a part of the Madlik community. If you listen to us a podcast share it, give it a star, write a nice comment. See you all next Shabbat. Okay, everybody’s Shabbat Shalom and look forward to seeing you all next week.

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Listen to last year’s vayishlach podcast: Arguing with God and Man

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Mother Rachel comes to me

parsah vayetzei – genesis 28 – 32

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on December 1st 2022. In a parsha that starts with Jacob having an iconic dream of a ladder joining heaven to the holiest place on earth, we find foreshadowing of the origins and significance of the third holiest site in Judaism; Rachel’s Tomb

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vayetzei, It starts with Jacob having an iconic dream of a ladder joining heaven to Earth.  By tradition, to the holiest place on earth, the Temple Mount. But we also find foreshadowing of the third holiest site in Judaism. Join us on the side of the road as we explore Rachel and her Tomb. Mother Rachel come to me.


Well, welcome. So I do look every so often what we talked about last year, and last year, we talked about HaMakom…. the place.

Adam Mintz  01:03

That was a good one last year.  Yeah, that was a point of departure. But before we get into this, you know, there was so many times and I refer to Rachel’s Tomb as the third holiest place in Judaism, and the temple mount where that ladder between heaven and earth is traditionally supposed to have stood. Is it universally accepted that we have the Temple (as #1) and then there’s Kever Hamachpela is number two, and Rachel’s Tomb is number three. I will just tell you the following. There is no question historically, that the Temple Mount is where the Temple Mount always was. And there’s also no question that the cave of Machpela is where the cave of Machpela always was. We actually have an unbroken tradition that people always visited the cave of Machpela. For many hundreds of years, it was the Moslems who visited the cave of Machpela, which is not surprising because they share at least Abraham with us. So they they visited the cave of Machpela. The tombstone of Rachel is open for debate. There are different traditions about exactly where Rachel is buried. We follow that tradition that she’s buried there, in Bethlehem, on the way to Efrat, but actually, there’s another tradition in the prophets, that she’s buried somewhere else. So that tradition is number three. But it’s that’s not entirely clear how that tradition falls. So it is kind of interesting that as she was we’ll see in a few minutes that she was buried on the side of the road. And so in a sense, it was a little bit like Moses, where it was kind of an unmarked grave. So it’s not exactly surprising that we don’t know the exact location. But I jump ahead of myself, I did want to say that, you know, many times I read The New York Times, and other periodicals and newspapers, and when there’s a problem or a situation on Har Habayit; the Temple Mount, they will typically say that the Temple Mount is the third holiest place in Islam and the last time I saw it, it says, and there were two (Jewish) temples there. It almost made me feel like there was new Israel of Flatbush and Temple Emanuel were there. There were two temples. You know, it’s, it’s really amazing how we’ve kind of lost that narrative because anyone who reads the Bible, you know, whether we want to another temple and not as a whole other discussion, but so much of it is based on the temple ritual. The Leviticus is all about what and the temple cult. And even if we read Christianity where Jesus threw over the money chainger tables in front of the temple. I mean, it was such a core part of Judaism. It really gets almost it becomes like an afterthought, many times when it’s mentioned (in the press), and that’s just amazing to me. Yeah, absolutely. is amazing. I mean, that’s, that’s more a comment about the New York Times and journalism today, but that is an amazing point. Yes. Yeah. I don’t know if it’s only them, but I thought I should mention that. And I must say that we Jews, and we’re going to get into this a little bit. You know, we’re not that holy space oriented. I mean, how many times have you been to for instance, Kever Rachelor I think I was there. I hardly remember if I was the the Kotel my wife loves to go. But you know, to me, Judaism and holiness is not so based on…..  You’re not a big kotel person either. Are you?

Geoffrey Stern  04:51

I’m not you know, I always think of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, that cynical Zionist thinker, who said when we got the Kotel, they’re gonna put some lights on it and it’s going to become the diskotel. But anyway, here we are. And we’re in Genesis. And what I want to do is even though the story of Rachel dying by and being buried on the side of the road is a parsha ahead of us, as I said, it’s foreshadowed here. And so what we have, and you’re going to talk about it this coming Shabbat, is this question of the switch between Leah and Rachel under the wedding canopy. And I am going to talk about two or three episodes in our Parsha, where there was a little bit of foreshadowing of what was going to be unique about both Rachel and then possibly what’s unique about her burial. So in Genesis 29: 25, it says, When morning came meaning the morning after Jacob thought he was being married to Rachel. Oops, there was Leah. So he said to Laban, what is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel, why did you deceive me. And Rashi quotes, the midrashic interpretation, which says that at night, he didn’t realize it was not Rachel. He didn’t realize it wasn’t Rachel, because Jacob had given Rachel certain secret signs by which they could at all times recognize one another. And when Rachel saw that they were about to bring Leah to him for the marriage ceremony, she thought, my sister may now be put to shame. And she therefore readily transmitted the signs to her. So here in this version of the story, and we might see that there were other versions, first of all, Jacob was aware of what could happen, Rachel was aware of what could happen, they knew the cast of characters, and Jacob took the initiative and says, Make this certain sign, and I’ll know it’s you, even if you under the thickest veil that could be and she at the last minute had pity on her sister, who would thereby be embarrassed, and she gave the signs to her sister. So I think from this perspective, this is something that’s kind of complimentary to Rachel, would you not think I mean, we have this concept against embarrassing somebody. And here, Rachel comes on puts that before everything.

Adam Mintz  07:29

There’s no question that that Midrashic tradition defends Rachel, it makes Rachel the Righteous One.

Geoffrey Stern  07:36

And and, you know, as I was thinking about it, and I was actually talking to my wife about this earlier today, if you think about the role that women have taken so far in Genesis, I mean, if it wasn’t for Eve, you know, we’d still be sitting, contemplating Nirvana in Gan Eden, if it wasn’t for Sarah, it would have been Ishmael not Isaac. The same goes for Rivka. There’s one thing that gets attributed to the women our matriarchs more than anything else. It’s this decisive action. I think that’s kind of fascinating, isn’t it?

Adam Mintz  08:14

Very fascinating. And here, and here, in this week’s parsha, you have the same thing. Even though it’s a little less clear with Rachel and Leah, exactly who does good and what everybody is doing. It’s not entirely clear.

Geoffrey Stern  08:28

We’re gonna see in a second that it gets a little murky. So later in the Parsha in Genesis 30, Reuben, one of the sons, I, one of Leah’s children, is out in the field, and he brings out some mandrakes, which I understand are maybe an aphrodisiac to his mom. And Leah said to her, was it not that you take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes? So Rachel asks for the mandrakes and Leah accuses her you know, you have my husband, he loves you more. He sleeps with you. And now you want the mandrakes too and Rachel replied, I promise he shall lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes so she in a way parlays the mandrakes….  I guess she wants this aphrodisiac because she’s having issues bearing a child and she trades that for a night with her husband. And Rashi comments on this saying because she thought lightly of companionship with so righteous a man. She was not privileged to be buried together with him. So now already we’re seeing Rashi bringing up Midrashim, who are starting to pin the blame on Rachel and explain why she deserved to be buried on the side of the road. What do you make of it?

Adam Mintz  10:00

Yeah, that’s interesting, meaning that she’s punished. You see, that’s why I’m saying it’s murky. The other thing that’s murky is about Leah. You know, Leah seems to kind of be snobby towards Rachel, because she has four children, and then six children. And Rachel has no children. And it seems like Rachel is helpless, but Leia doesn’t seem to care. So that’s also a problem with the whole story. There’s the role of Rachel and Leah seems to go back and forth and forth and back.

Geoffrey Stern  10:37

Absolutely. But where was Leia buried was?

Adam Mintz  10:42

Leah, was buried in the cave of Machpela.

Geoffrey Stern  10:44

Okay, so that is kind of interesting. But where we don’t need to go to the Midrash anymore. We go now to Genesis 31: 19. So Jacob has worked another seven years, and he’s got nothing. He’s got two beautiful wives. He’s got 11 kids at that time. And he says, give me something for all these years, and they come up with this scheme…. long story short, he works out so that he has enough to move out of the house. And as he’s leaving. Meanwhile, Laban had gone to shear his sheep and Rachel stole her father’s household idols. So they’re packing up to leave. And Rachel takes her father’s idols. And then as I even intimated last week, Laban catches up with them as they head to the border. And I he accuses Jacob of a lot of things, including he said, Why did you steal my gods, and if I knew my Greek mythology better, I would know who to refer to, but Jacob says, but anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive, he is so sure that no one in his camp would have stolen these Terephim,  these household idols that he swears that whoever sold them will die.

Adam Mintz  12:26

Of course, he’s predicting that Rachel will die.

Geoffrey Stern  12:29

Sure, as, Rashi says, in consequence of this curse, Rachel died on the journey. And that’s not Rashi, he’s quoting Genesis Rabbah. So here we have it. All of this foreboding stuff, which is blaming Rachel for certain things, and in a sense, trying to explain what happens at the end, which is in next week’s parshah. Genesis 35 as they set out to Bethel, some distance short of Efrat. Rachel was in childbirth and she had hard labor. ….  and of course we know hard labor. It brings us back to Eve who was cursed to have hard labor because of her sin. When her labor was at its hardest the midwife said to her have no fear for it as another boy for you. goes on to say this Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Efrat בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ אֶפְרָ֔תָה  now Bethlehem says the Torah. So it’s saying even up to this day, over her grave Jacob set up a pillar. It is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day. עַד־הַיּֽוֹם. So here we have full circle, we start the parsha with Yaakov falling to sleep on a bunch of stones, then the stones become one we have all that Midrash he wakes up and he finds out it’s a holy place. That’s the holiest place that’s where the temple was built. And here we have in our parsha the foreshadowing of an event where Rachel we buried on the side of a road, you could say in an unmarked grave, but it is marked and it’s marked.

Adam Mintz  14:22

It doesn’t say unmarked, right. It’s a marked grave  it’s marked


And it goes out of its way to say that it was marked by Jacob with a pillar. And the interesting thing is the Midrashim say that each of Jacob’s sons took a stone and put it on the grave 11 stones for the 11 tribes. And then Jacob went ahead and put a stone on top, a larger stone and these were the 12 stones. So you almost have the same type of correspondence, if you will, to making the site of the temple holy. Here they make the site of Rachel’s Tomb holy.

Geoffrey Stern  14:55

So I was always kind of interested and it kind of piqued my curiosity about what became so special about Rachel’s Tomb that gave it such a high profile. And then the interesting thing is, if you go a little bit further on, we start to get into the pathos. So, when Jacob is asking Joseph, to make sure he is buried in the Land, it’s an amazing pasuk. It says וַאֲנִ֣י ׀ with a major stop, he said, I, and then it goes on. When I was returning from Paddam, Rachel died to my sorrow while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Efrat, I buried her there on the road to Efrat now, Bethlehem. So Jacob, in his old age, when he’s asking Joseph to promise him to bury him in the land of Israel, he has this kind of confession, and Rashi, beautifully fills in the blanks. He says, I know that in your heart, you feel some resentment against me. Jacob is saying to Joseph, know, however, that I buried her there by the command of God and the future prove that God had commanded him to do this in order that she might help her children when Nebuchadnezzar would take them into captivity. So now all of a sudden, we have two themes. One is the guilt and the pathos that Jacob feels for not burying his wife in the the kever Hamachpela that his grandfather Abraham bought for Sarah, and the other is saying that God commanded him to do this because Rachel has a specific mission. She would be there as the exiled Jews were leaving Land of Israel, going to Babylonia. And of course that harkens to Jeremiah 31. Which says that said the Lord, a cry is heard in Ramah, wailing, better weeping, Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted. רָחֵ֖ל מְבַכָּ֣ה עַל־בָּנֶ֑יהָ, and then it says at the end that declares God, they shall return from the enemy’s land, and there is hope for our future. וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָ֥ה לְאַחֲרִיתֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־ה’ וְשָׁ֥בוּ בָנִ֖ים לִגְבוּלָֽם. And your children shall return to their country. So all of a sudden now in both Jeremiah and in the Midrashim, who pick up on this, now Rachel becomes this beacon to the exiled Jews. It’s a major metamorphosis. But the question is, does she lose any of the baggage? Or how do you integrate that baggage into it?

Adam Mintz  14:55

 Right.  Well, the first interesting thing is that the idea that she’s going to be there to welcome the children home, that’s not in the Torah. That is only from the book of Jeremiah. So from the Torah, you don’t really have that. You don’t know that tradition. He does for sure.

Geoffrey Stern  18:34

Absolutely. Well, when you say, the Torah, let’s talk about Jeremiah for a second. So, Jeremiah and Rachel, you know, if it wasn’t for this third holy spot in the world, if I had asked you who is the most important matriarch, you know, you would go down a list you would say, Sarah, you might say, Esther, Rachel is, you know, not. Anything that she did was not that extraordinary. But here maybe because of Jeremiah, where it says Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted. So you know, the question is, and it’s clearly in Jeremiah’s day he was aware of the link to the exile, Jeremiah after all wrote Lamentations he was that Navi the Prophet of the exile. So he clearly makes the connection, does he not? So what’s interesting is not everybody bought into that connection. So last week, we talked about Aramaic and the Targum, the Aramaic translation, the Targum Yonatan on that actually erases Rachel from it, and instead says בִּמְרַר יְרוּשְׁלֵם מְבַכְיָא עַל בְּנָהָא, he replaces Jerusalem with Rachel. He is more focused on the Roma, our cry is heard in Ramah in the high place. But in some of the research that I did, rabbi and this was what was fascinating to me, it was saying how this growth of Rachel as this, you can almost say, like a statue of liberty, the Jewish Statue of Liberty, the woman who cries for her exiled children, or even cries for mothers who are having trouble having children, this developed over time, and maybe there was even a little bit of resistance to it. And maybe that’s what we saw in some of those negative Midrashim, who was saying, in a sense, that she deserved it. But it’s not clear. And you, I think, kind of intimated this, when you say it’s not in the Torah. This was not something that was clear in the Torah, that Rachel was to be the mother of the exiles, and that her resting place was to be that beacon.

Adam Mintz  21:07

That’s correct. So I think what we’re really doing is we’re conflating we’re combining two different traditions of Rachel, there’s one tradition of Rachel is the beloved wife of Jacob, who kind of lives a tragic life. And she’s the only one in the entire Book of Genesis, who dies in childbirth, when you think about that, that’s a big deal to die in childbirth, probably happened all the time in the ancient world, but we don’t know about it. It’s the only time in the Torah, that we know about it. Isn’t that interesting? So she’s tragic. But then in Jewish tradition and Jewish lore in Jeremiah, this tragic figure, becomes the one who’s waiting for us, the one who’s greeting us when we come back, that’s the most beloved, she’s there to give us a hug.

Geoffrey Stern  22:01

Yes, absolutely. So where this tradition and the pathos really takes off, is I mentioned that Jeremiah was the author of Eicha; of Lamentations in Eichah Rabbah, the Midrashic interpretation of Eicha it has a petichta, an introduction, it’s a very long introduction, many people feel it was even added at a later date. And as the Jewish people are being exiled, one by one, all of the great patriarchs come in front of God, to plead a case not to exile them. First comes Abraham, then comes Isaac, then comes Jacob, then we go to Moses, and in the source sheet on Sefira, I’ve included the whole text because it’s fill of arguments and pathos, and nothing is getting through. Until finally, at that moment, Rachel our matriarch interjected, and then she goes into a whole recounting of what she did. And fascinatingly, she changes the story that Rashi quoted earlier, slightly, where she doesn’t have Jacob giving her the signs, she actually gave Jacob the signs, minor change, but again, making her more of the protagonist. And then she goes on to say, how could you exile these people, and to me, and this is a punch line that I saw that I haven’t seen many of the commentaries bringing up. It says, You who are a living in eternal merciful King, why were you jealous of idol worship that was no substance? See, brings up the fact that she took the Teraphim, she took the household gods from her father. And she says, in a sense, why are you being so tough on my children, and that is a point that I haven’t seen before, where she almost leverages the various things that she had done and maybe been criticized for and she leverages them into an argument for her children, who, as any mother would rightly say, are not perfect. And I think this Midrash is extremely famous in terms of the ethos and the history of making the tomb of Rachel into and Rachael herself, this patron saint of the rejected and despised and the exiled.

Adam Mintz  24:48

I think that you just set it up really nicely. And you know, that’s the question, and that is how did she become the patron saint of the exiled, the forgotten, the exiled. And part of it goes back to the fact that we’re sympathetic towards Rachel, that she loses her husband at the beginning. Right? So she is the tragic figure. And she doesn’t have children. Now again, it’s not all so simple, because she’s obviously not as passive as all that she takes the teraphim. Right? She’s the one she’s very much active. She’s the one who basically pushes Jacob out of her father’s house. Now, Is she angry at her father? Because her father trick, you know, tricked her and didn’t give her to Jacob? Is that why she steals the teraphim? Nobody says that. But is that interesting, right? Is that a possibility? Maybe that’s why she steals the terapham.

Geoffrey Stern  25:49

Yes, but I would also argue based on this Midrash, and this is not an old Midrash I don’t believe I do really believe there was added to Eicha Rabba. What this is trying to say is that she was like saying, you know, maybe what I did wasn’t totally right. Maybe I couldn’t wean myself 100% away from idolatry. But can’t you excuse a god that has no substance. And if you read it in this context, it’s really fascinating. What kind of argument is, that, to me is the takeaway, and it gives a whole new light on the teraphim as well, their household gods. What’s fascinating is what else happens in the later commentaries. So there’s a sefer called a sefer hayashar, and we’re talking the 13,00s. And it talks about when Joseph or son was sold to the Midianites. And they take them out of the pit, and they’re walking towards Egypt. And it’s a beautiful story, I encourage you to read it in the Sefira notes. Joseph gets off of the camel, when he sees the rocks next to the side of the road. And he cries, it’s the first exile, מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, it’s the first time we’re going down to Egypt, and he cries on his mother’s tomb. What’s fascinating is that this identical tradition is in Islam. We had a few weeks ago, where we have the tradition of Abraham visiting Hagar. Here, we have another one of these parallels between Islamic Midrashim and Jewish Midrashim. And in a sense, it also gives us an insight into how Rachel I mean, you were saying in the beginning, that one of the reasons why we think we know or at least there’s a consensus of where Rachel’s Tomb is, is you said, because Arabs come to it, Muslims come to it. When I was in Morocco, if you went to a Jewish shrine of a saint, there might be a Muslim there, and vice versa. There’s this tradition of going to a holy person’s grave. But what’s fascinating is, Rachel became almost the mother to any exile and the pathos of the story became available for all of Abraham’s children.

Adam Mintz  28:20

I think that’s right. You really have done a very nice job in weaving together the different traditions of Rachel and trying to make a story out of them. Even though actually in the Torah itself, that story, isn’t there. This story is a combination of different layers. You said something interesting when you said that the pesikta, the introduction to Eicha was a later. That’s what most scholars think that it was later. Now, that’s fascinating that it was later meaning that that was only added that piece which took turns the whole thing around. Right That that was only added later that wasn’t there as part of the original.

Geoffrey Stern  29:02

Yeah. Yep. It is really something that developed over time. And there are some monographs that I read that really until Moses Montefiore somehow was fixated …..his wife was childless and he renovated the Kever Rahel. It wasn’t that big of a deal. It was almost a local shrine that people from Jerusalem would go to. There’s a monograph that I quote that talks about pilgrimages, and, and of course, Christians went there, too. There were operas that were written about this story of Joseph crying on the stone, there were paintings that were painted…  classical paintings that were done on this. Clearly, all of a sudden Rachel and I and I named the episode in terms of Mother Rachel comes to me where John Lennon wrote about His mother Mary, but of course we all think of Mary, Jesus’s Mother, this kind of woman figure, that through understanding the pains of giving birth and understanding of the love that only a mother can have for her child became this much bigger symbol and ultimately; we’ll close here. And I’ve quoted in the notes how it was used in this opera and elsewise, but for the Zionists, the early Zionists, they also took Rachel, where she wasn’t so much there, to give assuage and to give comfort to the exiles, as they were departing. All of a sudden she became a beacon to welcoming the Jews back to their home back to the womb, so to speak. And that was the final kind of metamorphosis of it. And to me, it’s a fascinating story of the history of not only an idea, the history of a personality, but the history also of a place and if we have to make a place holy, why shouldn’t it be the place where people can make the association with the love that only a mother can have?

Adam Mintz  31:17

I think that’s beautiful. Thank you so much for putting this together. Shabbat Shalom to everybody. We look forward to seeing you next week. Be well Shabbat Shalom,

Geoffrey Stern  31:27

Wish you all a Shabbat Shalom and see you all next week.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s Parshat Vayetzei podcast: HaMakom – Place / No Place

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Circumspect about Circumcision

chayei sara, genesis 24

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on November 17th 2022. With the Binding (Sacrifice) of Isaac still on our minds we look at Brit Milah from a fresh perspecitve and review the meaning, function and contemporary controversies regarding circumcision.


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sara. After last week’s clubhouse discussion, I dropped in on another clubhouse discussion that segwayed from a discussion of the sacrifice of Isaac to circumcision. It got me thinking…. So with Akedat Yitzchak still on our minds we look at Brit Milah from a fresh perspective and review the meaning, function and maybe even contemporary sensibilities regarding circumcision. So, join us for Circumspect about Circumcision.


Well, welcome, welcome, Rabbi, welcome you faithful. So, you know, this week’s parsha really doesn’t talk all that much about circumcision. So just as excited as I was to link it with the binding of Isaac, I do have to link it to the parsha. So, the parsha begins, … after Sarah passes away, Abraham is concerned about his son Isaac, and he’s concerned like many parents are about finding a nice bride for him. So in Genesis 24: 2 it says as follows. And Abraham said to the senior servant of his household, most of our rabbis believe this was Eliezer, who had to charge of all that he owned, put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by God, the God of Heaven and the God of Earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell. So “under my thigh” Rashi writes, Rashi almost assumes it is that he was holding the member, the penis of Abraham, but more importantly, the sign of the circumcision of Abraham. And while she explains, because whoever takes an oath, must take in his hand, some sacred object, such as a scroll of the Torah, or tefillin, as circumcision was the first commandment given to him. And because it’s only through much pain, it was consequently dear to him; to Abraham. And therefore, he selected this as the object upon which to take the oath. So, we have heard already of the commandment of circumcision, we might even go back during today’s review and see where it’s written. And it’s a sign of the covenant. But we’ve never really had any meat put on it, so to speak. And here is a fascinating instance of how it was used. Rabbi, what do you make? Is this is this something that strange? Does it give us any insight in what circumcision is?  Well, I’ll tell you what the rabbi’s say. You know, throughout rabbinic history, whenever you took an oath, in court, you know, whatever it is, like we put our hand on the Bible, like Jews put their hands on the Bible or hold the Torah. In the Talmud, they hold the Torah scroll. But in the time of Abraham, there was no Torah scroll. There was no mitzvah, the only mitzvah they had was circumcision. So what the Rabbi say is that the reason he grabbed his circumcision is like grabbing a Torah scroll, like putting your hand on the Bible. And this isn’t an isolated case. It happens once more.  No, no, this happens a few other times. It’s not necessarily, you know, an exciting explanation, but it’s probably right. It sounds correct, doesn’t it?

Geoffrey Stern  04:22

Well, it does. Yes, it does appear elsewhere. Under for instance, Jacob; when Jacob is about to pass away, and he wants his family to swear that they’ll take his bones out of Egypt and bury him in the Promised Land. The same thing he says. And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned Joseph and said, place your hands…  so number one, it doesn’t seem to be something out of the ordinary, it seems to be kind of accepted. And one of the commentaries Rashbam, but also Shadal who we’ve quoted before, says that the making of a covenant or an oath of a son or a slave to his master was in this fashion for they shared the aspect of subjugation. And it is thus written a son shall honor his father and his slave, his master. However, (this is fascinating) handshaking or cutting an object into two for a covenant and passing between the pieces is found with other persons. So just as I think we’ve established that this was not a unique occurrence, I think what rush bomb and shutdown are saying is that this is something that you might find even in other traditions, it’s a sign of subjugation that a slave might give to the master. And I think of a brand. You know, a rancher brands, his animals, and after a while we do call it an “OT” a sign, it is a sign upon the flesh. So what he’s saying is it at the one level it’s almost like a branding and it’s almost like a slave would touch the sign of the brand. If it’s the okay corral, he puts his hand on that sign of the okay chorale to show fidelity. I think if you want to stop here and say what does Brit now mean between the Jewish people and God, it would be kind of like, we’re God’s servants, we are branded to the Master of the Universe. And that would be a very natural way of taking it. The other thing that Shadal says it is making a covenant and that of course, we saw in the in the original texts, whether Abraham made a covenant between the pieces where he cut animals in half, and maybe Abraham walked through them. But there was this sense of it. I was just blown away when he says כף אל כף, handshaking. It’s like sealing the deal. So we’ve had a metaphor of taking an oath, and holding something tangible, like a bible we have that when you get sworn into office, it seems to be all of these things combined. And seems kind of straightforward. The only thing that I would add is it reminds me a little bit of joining a gang like West Side Story.

Adam Mintz  07:39

Well, I mean, that’s exactly right. It is joining a tribe. And the one sign that the tribe had was bris that’s all they had.

Geoffrey Stern  07:50

But in terms of that tribe, where you would see a tribe or a gang, I should say, where they have their mark. And that would make sense where you make an oath, you touch the mark. And you say, yeah, man, I’m a Jet. Well, I’m a whatever, it does put it in to context, although clearly, when someone like a we read it. It seems very, very strange. But I think it puts it into the context of tribal relations, of swearing on something tangible that has meaning, of a sign. I think it’s in that way, it is it is kind of helpful.

Adam Mintz  08:44

Very helpful. I think what you’re you explain is really an elaboration about what I said; the circumcision, because it was all they had, it represented all of the things that you described, that idea of being part of the tribe, that that that covenant between God and the people, everything was reflected there. Now I find it interesting that he requires this tribal handshake of the person who’s not part of the tribe.

Geoffrey Stern  09:16

So I think, again, if we look back at Genesis 17, where this was all commanded, it’s clear that ….

Adam Mintz  09:26

Eliezer did have a circumcision…

Geoffrey Stern  09:28

It’s your servants to its its real branding. You know, the question is, does the sign of the covenant on a servant, mean fidelity to the master you or does it mean fidelity to the master of masters? But I think in 17, it says God further said to Abraham as for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages, so keep My covenant, such shall be the covenant between me and you and your offspring to follow. Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant א֣וֹת בְּרִ֔ית בֵּינִ֖י וּבֵינֵיכֶֽם. And then he goes on to say, as for the home born slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of yours offspring, they must be circumcised home bound and purchased alike. The covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact. And so clearly, here we have the outcome of that, where Eliezer is going on a very, I wouldn’t say a risky mission…  important mission. And he’s got to take this oath.

Adam Mintz  10:32

With uncertain outcome.

Geoffrey Stern  10:48

Absolutely. Absolutely. And this, this thing of “OT” is also kind of fascinating. You know, we’ve talked in the past, about belief, and whether belief was a commandment, or it was the basis for all the commandments. But here, even though there’s no question that circumcision is one of the 613 commandments, it kind of has a place of its own. in the sense that it is this “OT”. I mean, for instance, in practical terms, so many of the commandments you don’t do on Shabbat, Shabbat, overrides them, but one that doesn’t. And I gotta believe that doing a circumcision on Shabbat, I mean, does that literally break? One of the 39 melachot?

Adam Mintz  11:41

Yes, yes, it does. Yes, it does. To cut skin on purpose is a prohibition, one of the Lamed Tet Melachot, and it’s allowed because it’s a bris.

Geoffrey Stern  11:52

So in a sense, its kind of in a class of its own in that regard. Yochanan who is not here tonight, but who is becoming one of my favorite visitors to Madlik he was on last week in the after-party discussion. And when I went to another place of meeting and clubhouse, and he said that there is this verse that says,  דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום “Her ways are pleasant ways, And all her paths, peaceful” and he quoted one source that says with the exclusion of Brit Milah. So, Brit Milah is in kind of a class of its own. And  that becomes kind of interesting, does it not? I mean, you’re involved with conversion. Circumcision is a big part of conversion. It’s not simply just another commandment.

Adam Mintz  12:53

A male cannot convert to Judaism without circumcision.  Now some non-Jewish men today are circumcised at birth. That was because there was a period where they believed that that was healthy. But and even in that case, they need to have a symbolic, ceremony to turn that circumcision by the doctor in the hospital into a Jewish circumcision. The Jewish handshake as you call that.

Geoffrey Stern  13:28

Is it really called that?

Adam Mintz  13:30

The Jewish Handshake… Yeah, of course it’s called. That’s what you’re referring to when you gave the whole description. The Jewish Handshake.

Geoffrey Stern  13:36

Okay, okay. So there are different metaphors. There are some fascinating stories about circumcision that I’m going to review now. In Exodus, Moses spent some time with his father-in-law Jethro, and he’s finally going down to Egypt, and he’s going to do his main mission and free the Israelite people. And he’s traveling down with, it seems two sons. And all of a sudden, he’s at a night encampment, Exodus 4: 24 And at the night encampment on the way God encountered him and sought to kill him. So, Tzipora his wife took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin touched his legs with it, saying, You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי And when God let him alone, she added a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision. Well, first of all, we have to ask the question, why did this all happen and what’s the lesson? But clearly then, there is this question of letting blood and this starts to become interesting in the understanding of what that sign is, and I think this will segue us a little bit into starting to think of what how, if any parallels there were to the sacrifice of Isaac or the Akedah. But here somehow she is saying that by doing the circumcision on her son, she is now forever connected to him. And what connects her is the blood that was shed. What do you make of this strange story?

Adam Mintz  14:53

It’s a strange story, very strange story. You know, it’s something about the same thing, which is that was the sign that they were committed to going back to Egypt and representing the people, and therefore the son needed to be circumcised. The question is why Moses doesn’t do it. And why there needs to be such drama. We don’t usually have drama at circumcisions. You just have the circumcision? Why is there so much drama to circumcision? It also raises an interesting question, that the blood of the circumcision is the important part of the circumcision. That introduces the possibility that what we’re talking about here is really a sacrifice. That a circumcision is actually a sacrifice. Now, we don’t believe in human sacrifices, we can’t really give a human sacrifice. But we can do something that in a way reminds us about it, you.

Geoffrey Stern  16:35

So I think in the commentaries that we mentioned last week, when we were talking about call it the sacrifice of Isaac call it  the Binding of Isaac was this John Levinson. And he argues very strongly that the Qaeda, The Binding of Isaac has to be put in the tradition of sacrificing the first fruits, the firstborn to God. And he develops that throughout our tradition, and there’s plenty of legs for him to stand on. Because we have be Bikkurim, the first fruits we have Orla, the first harvest, we have pidyon ha’Ben, (redemption of the first born) we have all of these things, I think what you just said, would fit very well into his tradition, which means that the eradication of sacrificing one’s child or one’s one’s first child, for sure. But any child is something that takes a long time. It doesn’t disappear. It gets redirected. And clearly, and that’s why I was so impressed when I went to that other clubhouse. And they segwayed so naturally, from talking about the sacrifice of Isaac to brit milah. To circumcision, it took me a second to kind of connect the dots. But they were onto something there is this connection, I believe, between the two. And in a sense if that’s the case, then every time we have the Brit Mila, in a sense, we are reenacting….. They talk about the Mikdash ma’at (the small Temple), this is the Akedah Ma’at, is there anything there?

Adam Mintz  18:15

Yeah, no, there’s something there. This is it. This is the Akedah Ma’at, every religious experience, needs an Akedah moment. Now, usually, we don’t think about it as needing, you know, blood or sacrifice or any of those things. But you know, the more literally you take it, the more you get to that conclusion that you actually need a physical act. And like you said, from the beginning of Exodus, that act might require blood. I think that’s something that’s not emphasized enough in that Exodus story. The fact that  חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת that God says you are like the groom of blood for the bris. It’s all about the blood.  You know, as a result of doing my research this week, I said, well, let me pull out a siddur and let me take a look at the Milah, the circumcision ceremony. And I never saw this before. It was just a matter of I looked at the Ashkenazi Siddur on Sefaria and didn’t have the milah ceremony. So I went to the other side. I went into the Sephardic siddur. And I’m going to read you a Ye’hi Ratzon that I found in the Sephardic Siddur. It’s right up there.יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ,   שֶׁיְּהֵא   חָשׁוּב וּמְרֻצֶּה   וּמְקֻבָּל לְפָנֶֽיךָ, may it be the your Will, Master of the Universe, may it be Your will that it  be considered (the Brit Milah) and regarded favorably,  and accepted before You,  כְּאִלּוּ הִקְרַבְתִּֽיהוּ לִפְנֵי כִּסֵּא כְבוֹדֶֽךָ as though I had offered him (as a sacrifice) before the throne of your glory.  So, there it is. We don’t have a parallel to that in the Ashkenazi service, do we? That’s an amazing Yehi Ratzon, I mean, that clinches your argument right there. You don’t need to go any further than that. That’s the only source we need tonight. That’s an amazing Yehi Ratzon. That Yehi Ratzon means that in the Sephardic tradition, they are supporting that view.  So here’s where we start looping back and connecting the dots. If the Akeda is so difficult for us, what how does that impact upon the Brit Mila, and it I came across the sensitivity in modern society to this because I was involved in a wedding of a young couple. It happened to have a Jewish mom and a husband who had not yet decided to convert but she wanted a Jewish wedding. And sure enough, nine months later, they called me up. And she said, we’ve decided not to circumcise our son. And my father, she said, is beside himself. But we just feel that it’s traumatizes. She, she told me about a movie called American Circumcision, which I hadn’t watched until today. Boy, you know, if you watch this movie, you would be afraid of it too. There are those out there, it’s a new thing. It’s a new thing. There are two areas I think that the younger generation is starting to look at one is what can they do that similar for a girl in terms of a rite of passage, but the other is there are those who are very troubled by the whole circumcision procedure. So, what I told her, I want to work out with you. And I want to see what your opinion is. Before I tell you what I told them. I want to continue with our discussion of Tzipora. So as you say, Why did Moses not give circumcision to his son traditional interpretation is that the reason why Moses had not circumcised him was because they were going on a journey. “If I circumcise him and immediately proceed on the journey the child’s life will be in danger” is what Rashi quotes from the rabbinic sauces סַכָּנָה הִיא לַתִּינוֹק. And most of us know this when a baby is born, and they have jaundice or whatever, that Shabbat might not delay a Brit, but the health of the child definitely delays the circumcision…  to the point, and this was always fascinating to me, that there is a tradition that the whole generation of the Exodus was not circumcised. Meaning to say that in Joshua 5, it says as follows that all the people that Joshua brought …. Moses had died. Now he took the whole new generation out of the desert, and it says “proceed with a second circumcision of the Israelites”  וְשׁ֛וּב מֹ֥ל אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שֵׁנִֽית. And here the commentary to say something very similar to what they said by Moses and Tzipora and that is לֹא נָשְׁבָה לָהֶם רוּחַ צְפוֹנִית, there was no let-up in this northern wind all 40 years in the desert. And so, it was a sakana, it was too dangerous. There was a perceived health challenge of circumcising in the desert. And so, which is kind of amazing, if you think about it, you know, because you and I both know, they didn’t move every day, they camped out in some places for a long period of time. But nonetheless from this Joshua, there was this tradition, that we learned that if it’s something dangerous to your health, you can postpone it. So, what I told to this couple, because truly, I just felt here was a couple who wanted to be Jewish, who asked for a Jewish wedding, who hopefully had a very good experience, but you watch movies like these, and you can become very scared. And I said, If you truly believe that this is something that is dangerous to your child, you can put off the circumcision. That’s what I told him. And I’m sure there’s no rabbi, including you who will agree with that halachikly. I do think it was the right response because they weren’t going to have a circumcision one way or the other. But I’m curious. I never would have thought of that. But that is actually brilliant. Because now they can always keep in the back of their mind that they can always they can still do it. You didn’t say you’re bad people if you don’t have a circumcision, and I didn’t said you’re delayed.

Geoffrey Stern  25:24

Yeah. And I didn’t say you don’t have to do it or you, you’re gonna not do it. You delay it,

Adam Mintz  25:29

You’re delaying it. We’ll worry about it next.

Geoffrey Stern  25:31

Well, because maybe another movie will come out with other doctors and the other doctors will say it’s okay,

Adam Mintz  25:36

These things are clearly cyclical, because I can just tell you, as someone who’s involved with conversions, Until last year, I almost never had a young man who came to convert who wasn’t physically circumcised. Because 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 50 years ago, everybody was circumcised, the doctors circumcised, everybody in the hospital, just now I’m beginning to get people who are not circumcised. Because 20 and 25 years ago, they started this movement. “American Circumcision” is one example of that movement, that circumcision is bad for you. So, you have these young men who are going around and they’re not circumcised. Now, that’s fine. I mean, that was a decision, but it’s unfortunate when they come to convert to Judaism.

Geoffrey Stern  26:26

So the other thing that I learned, and this is a segue to my next question, practical question to you, is from this Rashi in Joshua, where it says that the whole generation did not get circumcised in the desert. It picks up on the language that it says “a second circumcision”. And a Rashi says that, שֵׁנִית זוֹ פְּרִיעַת מִילָה שֶׁלֹּא נִתְּנָה לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ that, is this the prick that you hear about?

Adam Mintz  26:58

 No, it’s the uncovering of the foreskin. They cut it, and then they uncover it.

Geoffrey Stern  27:05

So is it different than the circumcision?

Adam Mintz  27:08

No, they just pull the skin back so that the circumcision is visible. priya means to uncover.

Geoffrey Stern  27:17

So one of the things that came up in my research that I had not realized before, and I’m embarrassed to say that it was on Wikipedia, Is that we all heard about during the Hellenistic rule, the Maccabees….  Hanukkah is just around the corner, that the Greeks disdain and disgust with circumcision was so great, that there were Jews who wanted to assimilate who actually went through an operation to reverse their circumcision. And according to the sources, and actually I joke when I say it’s, it’s in Wikipedia, Wikipedia quotes, the Jewish Encyclopedia, which quotes Genesis Rabbah, and quotes the Tractate of Shabbat  were as a result of that the rabbi’s incense made circumcision more extreme than it had been before. Am I making any sense? Is there anything any basis to this that maybe circumcision before this whole Hellenism thing? was a little bit less?

Adam Mintz  28:32

It could be I’m not familiar with this. But that doesn’t mean so much.

Geoffrey Stern  28:36


Adam Mintz  28:37

I’m not familiar with that. But it fits in all those sources. And it’s right. Yeah, I’ll actually go down and dig out the sources. And for those of you listening, by the way, the sources are posted this week, right on our clubhouse, but it seems to me that circumcision is something that on the one hand is extremely, extremely basic. And that any, any movement like the one in this movie, I think, who questions the need to have circumcision as one of the Jews that are interviewed and says, look, if I wasn’t Jewish, I would question it too. But I have a religious commitment here. I think, then we’ll finish on this that one of the things that made circumcision even more important was that we were persecuted for it. And that once you get persecuted for fulfilling a mitzvah, then it becomes a line in the in the ground. So for instance, we all know that there were only certain commandments that you have to give your life for and they do not include circumcision. But the Rabbis say if you make a case of something in public if it becomes a litmus test, even changing the color of your shoelace, is something that is forbidden. And I think that in helping a next generation navigate this, we have to understand that today the issue of circumcision, thank God, is at least not one of a polemical nature or one of standing up against and standing for being Jewish. It’s a personal decision. And I think that studying the Torah and clergy and the community has to help a next generation understand it, grapple with it because if we can grapple with the Akedah, we can grapple with circumcision, they do seem to be linked. It’s spilling of blood.  I think that I think that’s great. This was a great topic tonight. Geoffrey, thank you so much. Chayea Sarah. Next week, Thanksgiving, everybody Toldot; you cannot beat it. Shabbat Shalom everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  30:58

Shabbat Shalom to everybody and thank you all very much. And be sure to listen to the Madlik podcast and if you like what you hear, share it with friends and family and give us a Star or a nice review. Thank you all so very much

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Unbinding Isaac

parshat vayera, genesis 18 -22

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on November 10th 2022 on Clubhouse. We look at the Binding of Isaac and wonder whether Abraham passed or failed this test. What possible lessons are to be learnt from this narrative other than blind faith and obedience. Finally, we are puzzled why Abraham confronts God over Sodom and confronts Sarah over sending away Ishmael but remains silent when it comes to sacrificing his son.

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Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vayera and we watch with pride as Abraham confronts God over Sodom and confronts Sarah over sending away Ishmael but we are dumbfounded as Abraham remains silent when it comes to sacrificing his son. We look at the Binding of Isaac and wonder whether Abraham passed or failed this test?  What possible lessons can we learn from this horror story other than that blind faith and obedience are to be rewarded? So put away your puzzles and join us as we try to untangle this riddle: Unbinding Isaac.


So boy, it really is a riddle. And it’s a riddle every year, it never goes away, it never gets solved. This strange story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. So, I think I’m gonna just jumped into the text. The only thing that I will say is what is going to be different about this year is we’re going to at least try to put it into context. And that is because it begins with four words, וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test. And through the magic of computers, and Google, and Sefaria, I can tell you that this is the first time that phrase is used in the Torah. So, this is a episode. This is a drama that cries out to be put into context. So here we go. It’s Genesis 22. Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test, saying to him, Abraham, he answered, here I am הִנֵּֽנִי. Take your son, your favorite one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there is a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you. So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac, he split the word for the burnt offering. And he set out for the place of which God had told him and on the third day, looked up and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his servants, you stay here with the ass, the boy and I will go up there, we will worship and we will return to you. Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He Himself took the firestone and the knife and the two walked off together. וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו. Then Isaac said to his father, Abraham Father? And He answered, Yes, my son, and he said he are the firestone and the wood. But where is the sheep for the burnt offering? And Abraham said, It is God who will see to the sheep for this bunt offering my son, and the two of them worked on together, וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו they arrived at the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, he laid out the word, He bound his son Isaac, he laid him on the altar on top of the wood, and Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son, then a messenger of God called to him from heaven, Abraham, Abraham, and he answered, here I am הִנֵּֽנִי. Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him. For now, I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favorite one from me. When Abraham looked up his I fell upon a ram cord in the thicket by its horns. So, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that site ה’ ׀ יִרְאֶ֑ה whence the present saying on the mountain of God there is vision, the Messenger of God called Abraham a second time from heaven and said, by myself, I swear God declares because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your favorite one, I will bestow my blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and the sands on the seashore. And your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed my command. Abraham then returned to his servants, I could add alone, because it says only Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer Sheva, and Abraham stayed in Beer Sheva. This is the whole chapter, the whole literary episode. And boy, does it raise questions or their nuances, or their commentaries and commentaries on commentaries between the lines. So I just want to raise the question that would come to any modern reading this, and I am going to put two reactions to this that are on the two extremes. The first is the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who tried to establish the rational basis of all morality. And he said, we can use as an example, the myth of the sacrifice that Abraham was going to make by butchering and burning his only son at God’s command, (the poor child without knowing it even brought the wood for the fire.) Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice, that I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain, but that you this apparition are God, of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from visible heaven. So, Kant, on the one hand, says, no matter how you read it, it is an offense to reason it is an offense to logic, go so far as to even say it it is an offense to any perception we have of a God, Kant would say, this cannot be God. And on the other extreme, is Kierkegaard. Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish existential philosopher, read it and said, The only conclusion that you can take from this is that we have to have a leap of faith, that we have to have a suspension of the ethical, that the basis of all religion is not to follow God when it makes sense. Not only to follow God, when it doesn’t make sense. But precisely when it doesn’t make sense. That is when faith is achieved. So here are the two extremes rabbi, is there any place in between?

Adam Mintz  08:15

I think there has to be. Let’s start from the beginning. So, Kant takes I think, what’s a more logical kind of explanation, that it can be justified, God’s command cannot be justified.  Kierkegaard really introduces something that needs some explanation. I don’t really know what suspension of the ethical means. I mean, obviously, I’ve heard it from Rabbi Riskin when I was 14 years old. So, I’ve heard it, I know it, but I still don’t really know what it means. Suspend the ethical, is that actually true? Does God expect us to suspend the ethical, I kind of think that God wants us to never suspend the ethical, why should we ever need to suspend the ethical? Shouldn’t the ethical be the ultimate by which we make all decisions?

Geoffrey Stern  09:12

But I think you could argue that if all religion is ethics, is what we would call wisdom and logic. What do we need God for? Where does God come in? I think Kierkegaard would say if you are an honest, in his case, Christian, and we might say an honest Jew, what you’re saying in the words of Hebrew National, is there is a higher authority. And that’s, I think, what he’s coming at from suspense. I think, the Akedah even in our tradition, Rabbi I mean, there were martyrs who martyred themselves, their children, their families, and did Kiddush Hashem sanctifying God’s name based on this story, saying, I don’t get it, I don’t understand it. But my faith in God transcends that, at least Are you with me that you understand that there is a thought process like this, that there are those who would look at us who say it’s all ethics is saying, well, then where does God come in? And where do you stop projecting your ethical ideas on the world?

Adam Mintz  10:29

I mean, obviously, that is what Kierkegaard says. And what’s interesting is that point is made by God being unethical. I would be happier if that point was made by God being ethical. But the point is made by God being unethical, God saying, kill your son. And what Kierkegaard is saying is you need to respect God, even when he says, kill your son. So, you’re right. That’s the way Kierkegaard defines religion, religion needs that, the phrases you quoted Hebrew National, the phrase that they always use is a leap of faith. The difference between religion and science is that science, everything makes sense. Religion always needs a leap of faith. And Kierkegaard is saying that the leap of faith in this case, is a leap of ethical faith, meaning we need to trust God, even though what God is doing breaks our rules of ethics. Isn’t that what it’s saying?

Geoffrey Stern  11:37

So it breaks all rules of ethics. But you know, I promised that we would stir the pot a little bit tonight, it actually breaks God’s rules of ethics. If you look at Deuteronomy 12: 31, it says, God detests that they should offer their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. So, there is a very strong tradition in Judaism. And, you know, I had a conversation with Loren this week about what it is that Abraham actually introduced to the world. And to say that he was a monotheist, in our western sophisticated sense is a hard one. But we can identify certain things in the Torah, that Judaism came to reject. And certainly Malach, the religion that was in the Canaanite religion, of sacrificing your children to God is explicitly rejected in God’s own Torah. And then in Deuteronomy 13, there are rules about listening to a false prophet. So, you can put Kant, and you can put Kierkegaard to the side, but we have an additional wrinkle in the story of the arcade dad, that God is almost asking Abraham ….  sure, the Torah has not been given yet. But he’s asking him to break his own Torah. And he’s asking him to listen from a voice from heaven. That sounds like it’s God. But maybe because of the tenants in our own Torah, you can question whether that’s a Navi Sheker, whether that’s something that I shouldn’t be listening to, does that enter into it too?

Adam Mintz  13:30

I don’t think it’s a problem that God says in Deuteronomy, you can’t kill your children, because God makes the rules. So, if God wants to make the rules, God can break the rules. We can’t break God’s rules, but God can break his own rules.

Geoffrey Stern  13:44

So that doesn’t bother you as much I get it

Adam Mintz  13:47

That doesn’t bother me as much because the whole thing bothers me. But that doesn’t bother me. The fact that there’s a contradiction in God’s Torah. When we get to it in Deuteronomy, we’ll figure out what the answer is.

Geoffrey Stern  13:58

You’ll get a good Brisker scholar and there’s a loophole here.

Adam Mintz  14:06

Right in the middle of the summer, we’ll figure it out.

Geoffrey Stern  14:09

Okay, so I promised that we would look at it in context, because of those impactful four first words. So why she says after these things, all of a sudden, this story that could be very isolated, is connected to what happened before. And Rashi says some of our rabbis say that it means after the words of Satan, who denounced Abraham saying of all the banquets which Abraham prepared, not a single bullock, nor a single ram did he bring as a sacrifice to you God. So basically, we have a story where Satan is coming in and saying, You think this guy is so great? You think he’s so holy, wait till you test him and an end that is what it means after these things. And the other thing that he says is others say that it means after the words of Ishmael. So now he has a story where Ishmael with Israel says…, it seems like to Isaac, he says, You know, I got circumcised at age 13. What the hell did you do? You were just a baby. If you had to stand up to what I did, you would not have persevered. So, it’s fascinating. What Rashi brings from rabbinic literature. I mean, the first thing where he talks about this Satan, we all know there’s this amazing book called The Book of Job. And the book of Job literally starts by saying that the Satan comes to God, and he says, you see this guy, Job, who you’ve given so much to, I’m not sure, if you gave him a few challenges, he would stand up. And there was a book that I just read from my friend, Richard Middleton, it’s called Abraham’s Silence The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God. I recommend highly, because it really surveys all the literature on the subject of the Akedah. But for the book, he tries to compare the story of Job to the story of Abraham. And Rashi, in a sense, is saying it’s a similar type of a story. So, we have two threads that we can untangle here, even if we only look at these two. The thing about comparing it to Job is that they were many in the Talmud, and Rambam, my mother is, in particular, says that if you look at job, it’s a parable. Job, it never really happened. It’s one of these kinds of ethical dilemmas, ethical stories that we’re supposed to learn from. So even kind of comparing it to Job puts it in a whole different perspective, is this something that really happened? Or is it a parable that we’re supposed to learn from? So, before we even get to the second part of Rashi, that talks about comparing it to Ishmael L. Rabbi, can we look at this as something that is so farfetched that it almost becomes in the same category as Job where it becomes a kind of a legal fiction, something that were supposed to do what we’re doing tonight, which is, evaluate and look at, but maybe something that never really happened?

Adam Mintz  17:44

So I think that’s what Kierkegaard says, I don’t think Kierkegaard cares whether it happens. Kierkegaard says that the story is there to tell you something important. You know what that important thing is that you have to suspend the ethical sometimes, because God is always God did it happen did not happen did Job happen, doesn’t make any difference. The details don’t matter. What matters is that you have to realize that our ethical understanding can’t be the last word. It’s really what you said before, that you pushed back to me, and I think that’s right. So, I think that that point you just made is a really interesting point, that point that whether it happened or not, even though in Yeshivah obviously, you know, it happened, how could it not have happened? But when you look at it really honestly, I don’t think that matters,

Geoffrey Stern  18:34

Except that so much of what we do at Madlik is to say what happens if you look at this as literature as opposed to reality? You know, if you look at  אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה as the beginning of a new chapter, in a parable, I think maybe as we go through the evening, that might take us in a different direction. I think Richard Middleton, in his book, tries to really press the parable of Job because as we all know, in Job, he is confronted by people saying you shouldn’t question what happened just now, you should actually be that pious servant of God who takes that leap of faith and suspends his ethical judgment. And the punch line of Job is no God says, You, you Job are right in questioning, and you should silence these guys. And Richard wants to project that on to the Akedah. But of course, that only leads to more questions because of the silence of Abraham. In what I read in the beginning. Abraham only says two words to God or to God’s angel throughout the whole narrative Hineni. I’m here. It’s really amazing. how little he says, I mean, it’s almost as amazing how little he says to his son, there have been hold studies done on this in terms of just how powerful a story it is because so much is left in between the lines, I really emphasize that they walked together, the walking together is a powerful positive image. But the negative image of that is that they walk quietly. They didn’t talk, the father did not talk to the son, the son, only at the end said, Where’s the sacrifice. It’s such a powerful story because of what’s not said, as much as what is said.

Adam Mintz  20:44

So here now you come into a different, you see, up to now, we’ve been talking about God. Kant talks about God. Kierkegaard talks about God, just now you started talking about the people. Abraham, why was Abraham silent. So, there was a German literary critic in the 1950s. His name was Eric Auerbach. Eric Auerbach wrote an essay on the Akedah, he asked your question, (Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature – Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition Erich Auerbach) what did Abraham and Yitzchak talk about on the Akedah. Don’t tell me they didn’t talk. That’s idiotic. They didn’t talk if they didn’t talk, because they were petrified. But that also needs to be said, Right? What did they talk about? So, he makes the following argument. He said: What did Avraham and Yitzhak talk about? He said, They reflected on what their lives had been up to that point. What else would you talk about? When you’re on the way to sacrificing your son? They must have talked about what their life was and what Avraham’s dreams were for his son, and what Yitzchak’s dreams were for himself. And that was all going to come to an end. So, Auerbach thinks that the Torah doesn’t tell it to us, because the Torah wants to focus on God. But actually, there’s no reason to believe that Abraham and Isaac don’t have a father son relationship.

Geoffrey Stern  24:13

So I love that you mentioned Auerbach, because he really does focus on how distinctive this whole narrative is. And you definitely raise one of the points. But you know, it seems to me that we need to look, the text is crying out for context, we’ve already emphasized how powerful the questions are. But if you go back this parsha is so unbelievable. It starts with God, after promising to Sarah that she will have a child. It says that these three people that came to visit, go down towards the Sodom. And now God had said in Genesis 18: 16. Now he had said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him, for I have singled him out that he may instruct his children for posterity to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right in order. So, God is contemplating destroying Sodom. And he says, How can I hide this from Abraham, Abraham is a paradigm of he is going to be the model of ethical behavior, I need to share this with it. And then Abraham are kind of almost mimics Gods introduction. And in verse 25, says, Far be it from you to do such a thing, after God tells him he’s going to destroy Sodom to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty. And he says, Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly. So this story of the Acadia is not on a Tuesday afternoon, where nothing is going on? We are just finishing a story about doing justice, about doing the right thing. And Abraham goes on in verse 27, says, Abraham spoke up saying, Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. So this Abraham who says nothing during the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac, all of a sudden has a voice. And he just goes on in verse 30. And he said, Let not MY LORD be angry, if I go on, what if 30 should be found there? I will not do it. If 30 are there, he talks to God he goes if there are 50, 40 30 righteous people, and then he goes on he says, Let my Lord not be angry if I speak this last time. What if 10 should be found there? And God says, I will not destroy for the sake of 10, having finished speaking to Abraham, Hashem departed, and Abraham returned to his place. So, I don’t know, maybe this is what the beginning of the Akedah is referring to when it says, After these things, but here we have a different Abraham, we have an Abraham, who is arguing with God who has a voice, certainly there has to be that contextual irony of it. What do you make of that? Why does he argue for the people of Sodom, and not argue for his son, his only son, Isaac?

Adam Mintz  25:44

Well, first of all, I want to tell you, if we had an answer to these questions, we could retire the clubhouse class, because no one’s ever had a good answer to that question. I mean, that’s the question right there, you ask the question. It can’t be. And that has nothing to do with Kierkegaard that has nothing to do with suspending the ethical, that has to do with Abraham, fighting for people. He’s willing to fight for the anonymous person of Sodom whom he doesn’t know. And he doesn’t fight for his son, the religious answer, the answer you heard in Yeshiva, once upon a time, is that when it came to his son, that was a direct order, and therefore he couldn’t fight with Sodom. God gave him some wiggle room. So, we fought, but that’s not a satisfactory answer.

Geoffrey Stern  26:35

So, some of the commentaries are asked, why did he stop at 10?

Adam Mintz  26:40

Yeah, that’s a good question.

Geoffrey Stern  26:42

And they also asked, wasn’t this all about his nephew, Lot at the end of the day? Who was living in Sodom? I mean, isn’t how the story progresses? Why doesn’t he say, will you not save Lot.

Adam Mintz  27:00

I think he probably knew that God wouldn’t kill Lot. Because already in the war of the Four Kings and the Five Kings last week, God didn’t kill Lot. So, it’s pretty confident that Lot was safe.

Geoffrey Stern  27:12

So this is one of the insights that I got this year. And it was as a result of reading this book, Abraham’s Silence by Richard Middleton. If you look back at our initial story, in the beginning, and you pointed this out this week, God says to him, take your son, your favorite sub one, Isaac, whom you love. And of course, you pointed out last week Rashi, quoting the Midrashic interpretation, is where Abraham says, We’ll take your son, he says, I have two sons, your favorite one, he says, I have two sons that I love. And then he finally has to go to Isaac. What is fascinating is that when the story ends, it says, first of all, in verse 12, Do not raise your hand against the boy, for now, I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favorite one from me. It doesn’t say Isaac, who you love. And then at the end, it also says in verse 16, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favorite one. Again, it doesn’t say Isaac, who you loved. So we at Madlik. We don’t live in one week in isolation. We know that last week, we talked about the story of a Ishmael. And we commented, and that’s also in this week’s parsha that when Sarah said to Abraham to send off Ishmael, Abraham also saddled up his ass early in the morning. There are people that make direct parallels verse to verse, between the rejection, the exiling of Ishmael to the story of the Akedah and here we quoted last week that it seems as though Abraham actually loved Ishmael very much if we’re talking about an argumentative Abraham as I said in the intro, even then he argued with Sarah Why send him out? This quiet hineni Abraham of the Akedah argues with Sarah Why send him out. And ultimately, he listens to Sarah and he listens to God. But one of the things that I started thinking about this week based on the fact that the beginning of the Akedah story is talking about Isaac, who you love and the end where The angel has to call out twice to Abraham not to kill the boy, and says, now you’ve proved your point. It doesn’t say Isaac, who you loved. I wonder if this is also about that dynamic. I wonder if this is a story of God putting Abraham to the test, I joked about whether Abraham passed or failed the test. But a test is made to show the teacher but also the student, who they are and what they know. And maybe there’s a dynamic here as well, about testing Abraham to see how much he loved this son, Isaac. And from that perspective, I think it’s an open question whether he passed or failed the test.

Adam Mintz  30:51

I’m with you. I’m happy to end the half hour with that. I’m with you. I do not disagree with you. I think that that’s an open question. I think actually, the whole story of the Akedah. The point is that it’s an open question. I don’t know whether Kierkegaard is right. Or Kant is right. I don’t know whether Abraham passed the test. I’m not exactly sure. You know, we call it The Binding of Isaac. Yeah, we call this class unbinding. Isaac. But why? Why is Isaac part of it? Isaac has no say, we don’t have time for this tonight. But there’s a fantastic question. How old Isaac is, there were three opinions in the commentaries. Either he’s five years old, 17 years old, or 37 years old. Now, if he’s five years old, it has nothing to do with him. He didn’t have any say in it. He was a kid. If he was 15, then you know, I understand he’s still a kid. But if you imagine he’s 37 years old, and his father wants to kill him, how could he not stand up for himself? We didn’t even talk about that part. So I don’t know if Isaac passed the test.

Geoffrey Stern  32:04

So I’m going to say something now that’s going to take Isaac out of the equation, I’m going to say something and that I’m just going to leave you all with that rudimentarily changes the whole story. Buried in the Guide for the Perplexed part 2: 41. Maimonides says, whenever there is an angel in a story, it is a dream. And if he had stopped there, we would all be flagging around saying, when does this apply? But he actually quotes our verse, of the angel coming in saying, Abraham, Abraham. And he talks about Abraham’s first Mareh (vision), where there was something terrible and fearful, which the Prophet feels while awake, and he has a great vision, and then his strength is taken away. What happens if the whole Akedah is I wouldn’t even say Abraham’s dream, I would say it’s Abraham’s nightmare. It’s Abraham’s attempt to deal with unresolved issues about his son Isaac, about his son, Ishmael, about who he is. And it’s all unresolved issues, too, in a sense. That’s what it’s all about. This becomes a kind of a canvas for all of us. it’s an open question it will always be open like a dream, that every year, we try to wrap our arms around, but to me, it puts it in a totally different perspective that this is going on in Abraham’s mind, and he’s trying to resolve unresolved issues.

Adam Mintz  33:55

That is a great way to end. Enjoy your Hadar Shabbaton, Geoffrey.  I can’t wait to hear what their insights are Shabbat Shalom to everybody. And we look forward to seeing you next week. Parshat Hayei Sarah, Shabbat Shalom,

Geoffrey Stern  34:08

Shabbat Shalom and can’t wait till next week. And if anyone has any questions or wants to continue the discussion, go ahead, raise your hand.

Yochanan Lowen  34:22

Thanks, Rabbi The binding of Isaac is maybe my favorite topic of all. So, and I think I will have to open a room about it. So what I would say that you mentioned, Maimonides is talking about it. But according to what I heard from Professor Mark Shapiro, Maimonides himself does not actually talk about the binding of Isaac, but one of the commentators on the Gude for the Perplexed. (Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History Hardcover – May 1, 2015 by Marc B. Shapiro pp 67-70) I think his name was Narvani. He says that, according to my Maimonides, The Binding of Isaac was you can say it was only a dream or a vision. It wasn’t real. But guess what? This piece of Nirvani was censored. In the later editions. You have it only in the first edition of this commentator on the Guide of the Perplexed. And that’s very illustrational. There is, I think, maybe many people will be surprised to hear that I think that according to Talmudic and rabbinic opinion, Kant was more right than Kierkegaard. The Talmud says that all the the religious rules and laws of God has to fit with common sense logic and pleasantness. (דרכיה דרכי נועם see.  If it doesn’t fit with that, it cannot be a commandment from God. There is a famous rabbi in the 18th century, who says that there is only one exception in the Torah for that. There’s only one commandment that doesn’t fit with pleasantness. And that’s the mitzvah of Brit Milah. But besides that, there is no other What do you think?

Geoffrey Stern  36:31

So first of all, I love that there’s a commentary that says that but in our source sheet, you will look at my, the guide, Philippa Plex to 41. And literally in here, he talks about anytime that there’s an angel, it is just a dream, I shouldn’t say just because obviously, this was a powerful dream. But he literally mentioned our verse. So it’s, it’s buried in there. There was a guy who I don’t have a lot of respect for named Leo Strauss, he was a professor at Chicago University. And he wrote a whole book on Maimonides, especially the Guide for the Perplexed, and it was called Persecution and the Art of Writing, and he said that my Maimonides hid many things in between the lines. I don’t know if I ascribe to it in total, but certainly in this case, my monitor is whether we sing that job is just a parable, which is widespread in the Talmud, or here saying that the whole Akedah is a dream, I think definitely gives us license. I love what you said about the Toa having to be pleasant. There was a great scholar, he was actually in the family of the Chatam Sofer, the Katav Sofer, he called himself the Dor Rev’eiee, the fourth generation, he was a very orthodox, but he also supported starting a state of Israel. And

Yochanan Lowen  38:04

He was the Rabbi of Klosenberg.

Geoffrey Stern  38:06

Yep. And and he, he says, he quotes the verse כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה. In Deuteronomy, it says that the Torah is your Hachma, which is wisdom, Binatchem your discernment in the eyes of the nation. And instead of taking that as something that was descriptive. He took that as something that was prescriptive, so that we are commanded to be logical to be ethical to be moral. And he took it has ramifications. So, I love that you bought that, that that that part of it into it. But this is truly also one of my favorites, my favorite stories as well. It is just fascinating. And it’s what Torah is all about. It lends itself to so many different perspectives and insights. Lauren, welcome to the Bimah what’s on your mind tonight.

Michael Weiser  39:09

This has been very, very interesting to me, because in Genesis 20, to one it says sometime afterward, as you said, God put to the test Abraham saying to him, Abraham, and Abraham answered, and then to stop this whole transaction. It was the angel that got involved. And you went through like four explanations whether it was a dream or whether it was actually God speaking. Why do you think to begin with? God spoke to Abraham in the text. And then it was concluded with the angel speaking to him was there only because of the fact this was a dream but what precipitated the dream, if it was God that started it.

Geoffrey Stern  39:57

So first of all, I’d like to say There is it’s very easy to come down very hard on Abraham here. And you know, maybe I was leaning towards the fact that Abraham was ready to sacrifice this guy Isaac because maybe he loved a Ishmael more. Maybe he resented what he had had to do to Ishmael. I mean, I’m not sure about his relationship with Sarah even I mean, twice, once in this week’s parsha. He pimps her off to a king or somebody saying that she’s my sister. Really, this is a fascinating relationship. But I do think that the commentaries that focus on what you just pointed out, which is that the command came from God, and the cease and desist came from an angel, that almost bodes well for Abraham, that he was waiting for anybody to tell him to stop. On the other hand, why did the angel have to say, Abraham, Abraham, you know, so there’s so many nuances into this. But clearly, the classical commentaries do recognize that the original command came from God. And Abraham in the Midrash says to the angel, well, who the hell are you I was commanded by God, if anyone’s going to stop me, it needs to be God. And nonetheless, he did acquiesce. But that is another nuance, to this story, no question about it. And of course, if you make it all into a dream, it’s this nightmare, where he’s torn, he really resent this son. And, and he, he wants to, to, to stop the sacrifice, he wants to embrace him. But at the end, he can’t bring himself to say, my son, Isaac, who I love. And one of the things that I really wanted to talk about, was that the idea that came into my head was that, you know, Abraham was one of these leaders who loved humanity in the abstract. So, he could definitely argue for Sodom, he stopped at 10. He didn’t get into his nephew Laban. He loved humanity in the abstract. And those are the kinds of leaders whether it’s a Marx or even a Herzl, who can start a movement. But when it comes to their own family, when it comes to their own people, you know, I’m thinking of a Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov of he says, “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together.” So I think this might be even a parable about leadership. And let’s face it, at the end of the day, you know, there was Noah, and then there was Abraham, it could have stopped there. You know, Abraham could have had the 12 tribes. There are piyutim in the sources that I bring in the source notes that say why Abraham could not get the Torah, why it had to wait for Moshe. And the reason he couldn’t, is because he was not אב על בנים. He was not a good father; he obviously had not worked this whole thing out. And that’s an amazing story, also, that we get through Genesis, how we have parents trying to figure it out, and they’re not altogether successful. And therefore, there’s a process, it doesn’t just stop with Abraham.

Michael Weiser  44:17

Thank you. Just one last quick question. Did Abraham love Lot?

Geoffrey Stern  44:21

You know, who knows? Who knows he had a transactional relationship with Him, in terms of Abraham came rich very quickly, partially because of Sarah, because this whole story that I reflected on before where he said she was my sister, and then the king gave her up and he gave much riches to Abraham, but he comes back to the land of Canaan, and he lets Lot choose where he will go. There’s friction between The shepherds of Lot and Abraham. So, it’s, it seems to be on the personal level. You know, the one you’d like to say that Abraham had the real relationship with was Ismael. But again, he’s he tried to stand up to, to Sarah, and he folded according to Rabbinic Judaism, you almost have to conclude his real relationship was with Hagar, who, after Sarah dies, he goes to in the stories that we read last week, it’s really a fascinating account of a not perfect individual, which is ultimately all of us, but the one who was responsible for creating this nation that was like the stars and like the sand. I think that’s a message too. There’s a there’s a biography coming out, I believe on Herzl, and hurt so of all the people in the world was the most imperfect individual, but he had one dream and I mean, it’s like Churchill was a failure until he came to World War Two. I think this might be a little bit of a parable in terms of leaders and leadership.

Michael Weiser  46:18

Thank you so much. Shabbat shalom.

Geoffrey Stern  46:20

Shabbat Shalom to you. Yochanan. So Yochanan, I am fascinated with you and what you what you do on on clubhouse and I’d love to learn more.


Thanks, Rabbi. I it’s a very big compliment when it comes from you. And I think I’m going to open now room about the binding of Issac, you inspire me.

Geoffrey Stern  46:45

So what is your background? And you’re very active on on on clubhouse I think I’m looking at your bio. You are the Hasidic Maskil of clubhouse Tell, tell us what that means.


It sounds kind of a paradox or oxymoron, right? Because the Hasidim and the Maskil were the biggest enemies. But I’m not the first one. From the 19th century. The first Hasidic Maskil was Eliezer Zweifel,   he published a book Shalom al Yisrael to make peace between all the Jewish movements of the time, the Hasidim the Misnagdim and the Maskilim and, and even the radical Maskilim like reformers or so. And he took for his book he took for recommendations from each of our four movements. It took recommendations of his book, believe it or not, even a Hasidic rabbi from the Schneerson dynasty, gave him a recommendation in 1870. So I grew up the siddik. I was a Hasidic Torah teacher. And now I’m Hasidic Maskil.

Geoffrey Stern  48:06

I am a paradox world. So I mean, I, obviously I didn’t grow up religious, although we always had Friday night. Shabbat and then at age 14, I became very religious, and I went to yeshiva in Brooklyn Torah Voda’as. And for six years I was in that world and don’t regret a second of it. But I really feel that in the shtetl, there was always someone who studied the Talmud on Shabbat with a cigar, whether he was called an Apicorus or a Maskil. And Judaism always thrived with those. And so when I saw that you were the Hasidic Maskil, I said, that must be a kindred spirit. And I think that we really do need more people like us.  What we stand for, is that this Torah, and this religion and our mesorah and  tradition belongs to all of us, and dare you, dare you tell me that it’s not mine, Because I don’t live up to some sort of predetermined threshold. It was given to all Jews and all humanity actually. So I think that we are very important to the world. And you know, there was a whole generation of very learned Jews that came out of Europe, and they went whether to Israel or to the states. There were scholars that came out of the Slobtka Yeshiva…   there’s a book on them. There was a Harry AusternWolfson at Harvard, there was Menachem Alon. A jurist, a Supreme Court judge in Israel, they will all totally knowledgeable in our Jewish tradition, but we’re no longer observant. Big deal, they also own it, they also have a right to speak about it. And I think that’s, I think we need, we need more of that. So Kol HaKavod to you.


I like what you said Geoffrey. So the greatest, the most famous Torah Scholar of the 18th century was Rabbi Jonathan Ibshitz. And he, he was kind of a radical rabbi, at the time, there was big dispute about him until today in the Torah world. And he he wrote in one of his esoteric Kabbalistic books, he wrote that in the period of the Messiah, the Messianic era, the mitzvahs would not be relevant anymore, but the Torah will always be relevant. So he made the distinction between the study and the knowledge of Torah and observing themselves of the mitzvah. So it’s a very radical idea, and he was actually persecuted for that. And obviously, he had to deny his authorship on that book. But all the academics today believe that he was actually the author.

Geoffrey Stern  51:25

Amazing. I had not heard that. Michael, welcome to the Bima.

Michael Weiser  51:30

Thanks so much, and quick question for you appreciate the discussion. I’m happy to listen to the story of Abraham and Isaac during the second day of Rosh HaShana, as traditionally, but you know what, I don’t know why it’s customary to read it that day. So if you have any insight to that, I would love to hear it.

Geoffrey Stern  51:54

So I, in typical Jewish fashion will amplify your question. Because what’s read on the first day is the story of Ishmael. So I made reference today a little bit to the fact that they both start off identical fashions that Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his ass. And there are those … you can google it very quickly, to see those scholars who have literally mapped the two stories one to the other. And this is modern scholarship. But as I always believe modern scholarship, there’s nothing that they have on the rabbis and the rabbis in the Talmud, because it does go back to the Talmud, who said on the first day, we talk about the story of Yishmael, that is considered also a test of Abraham. And on the second day, the story of the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac. So I think if you pull back and you know, clearly, there are many Rabbi sermons that we’ll talk about why we have the two parshiot out on the two days, I think, if you pull yourself back from all of the highfalutin, and hermeneutics and darshanut. Ultimately, at the end of the day, you can not but recognize that for the most straightforward approach. You know, we’re talking about Abraham’s two sons, and they went on different paths, and they had different functions. But that had to have been very impressive. I think the Talmud itself always looks at the story of Abraham as the paradigm of sacrificing for God, for piety for listening to God, and that they took as a message that we were to have on Rosh Hashanah. And that’s literally what’s said, in the in the Talmud, in Megillah, but I think you can’t but ask, number one, these are two tests for Abraham. And at the end of the day, we’re almost looking at Abraham not as a patriarch, but as a dad, as a human being torn between these two instances. So again, I apologize for not focusing only on the Akedah. I think if you had to answer the A Qaeda, that’s a pretty easy answer, the Qaeda, and here we have to bend a little bit to Kierkegaard is the preeminent example of blind faith, of piety, and that’s how it has been kneejerk taken. And that would be the most obvious answer to say, on Rash Hashanah whether it’s the holiest day of the year or leading up to the holiest day of the we need to know that we need to listen to our God, no questions asked. And that what the Acadia is about. But I think it’s more complex than that. And I think the fact that the story of Ishmael is on the first day blows me away every year. And I’m curious why that also wasn’t a question to you, but the Akedah is, is, you know, we gotta listen to a higher authority. That’s a pretty obvious choice for a high holiday in my mind. Anyway.

Michael Weiser  55:29

Well, thank you so much for your response and Shabbat shalom.

Geoffrey Stern  55:32

Shabbat shalom. Thanks for joining us. I wish you all a Shabbat shalom. Come next week at eight o’clock Eastern. And make sure to listen to the Madlik podcast and give us a few stars and a good review and share it with your friends and family. Shabbat Shalom and I’ll see you all next week.

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Listen to last year’s podcast: The Miraculous Birth and Ressurection of Issac

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Call me Ishmael

parshat lech lecha, genesis 16 – 25

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on November 3rd 2022. We discover that when the younger son Isaac is chosen, the older son Ishmael’s banishment in some way endears him to his father and latter Rabbinic and Muslim commentators. By being rejected Ishmael may actually provide an alter ego of the Jewish people. We will discuss…

Sefaria Source sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha, normally associated with the birth of the Jewish people.  Reading it afresh this year we discover that when the younger son Isaac is chosen, it is at the expense of the older son Ishmael’s banishment.  We explore how Ishmael’s role as the outcast in some way endears him to his father and latter Rabbinic and Muslim commentators. By being rejected Ishmael may actually provide an alter ego and narrative to the Jewish people. So with apologies to Herman Melville, join us for Call Me Ishmael.


So yeah, we’re going back to Moby Dick. It feels like we’re back in high school. For those of you who have forgotten your high school class in literature, it is the first three words of Moby Dick. And he Ishmael is the narrator of the whole story. And he kind of disappears. He’s characterized as someone with little or no money in his purse, nothing to do. He says, If I stay here any longer, I’m gonna start hitting people. So that’s when I take to the sea. So he’s kind of a wanderer. And maybe that’s why Melville called them Ishmael. But more important to us, he kind of disappears in the narrative until the end when he’s the only survivor. So normally, as I said, in the intro, when we read Lech Lecha, we are focused on the birth of the Jewish people on the amazing narrative, of Avram and Sarai leaving their homeland and going on this amazing journey and pilgrimage. But along the way, we get this breadth of Ishmael this other character, who, like Ishmael in Moby Dick appears, and then seemingly kind of a disappears. So, I think I’d like to introduce this whole episode, because we are talking about Isaac and Ishmael, the two sons of Abraham, with a quote from Robert Alter, the great modern commentary as literature on the Bible. And he says the entire Book of Genesis is about the reversal of the iron law of primogeniture, about the election through some devious twist of destiny of a youngest son to carry on the line. So, if last week, we talked about the flip side of choosing a Noah choosing an Abraham was regretting another choice. Today, we’re going to talk about if the narrative of all of Genesis is choosing, not the firstborn son, the second born son, and then the flip side of that is the rejection of the firstborn son. Or to put it in a more ironic way. If primogeniture is a sense of entitlement of the first born, the Bible systemically rejects the first boy. So it’s the rejection of the entitled, if you will. And that’s kind of an interesting way to look at the, the dynamics of not only Ishmael and Isaac, but Esau and Yaakov. What do you think, Rabbi?

Adam Mintz  04:05

I mean, that is the story. Actually, last week, we were given a little glimpse of that, because the story of Noah getting drunk after the flood, there was Shem, Ham and Yefet, and the one who’s really chosen is sham, who turns out to be the youngest son. So, we get that a little bit there. But here for the first time, we get the idea that Abraham has two sons, Ishmael should have been the chosen son. He was born, you know, Sarah suggested that he bear a child with Hagar with the maidservant. And he was born and he should have been the one and there should not have been any story. But Sarah gets jealous and God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah. So, the story is the fact that the older one is put aside for the younger one. And the famous introduction to the story of the binding of Isaac tells us that God says to Abraham, take your son, your favorite son, the son that you like more than anybody else. And Rashi says, why does he have to say so many things just take, say, your son, take your son, there’s no reason to take your son. He says, I have two sons. Take your son you love. He says, I have two sons that I love. Take the son that she only wanted. Well, I have two sons, the only one so they’re two. They’re one mother. And so therefore, Abraham wasn’t so sure which son it was. God had to tell him which son it was,

Geoffrey Stern  05:33

Man, you hit the nail on the head, right There’s no question about it. I think to me, what’s intriguing is when you systemically, reject the firstborn, and you pick what you normally call the runt of the litter, then the first port becomes the rejected. And that’s kind of what’s fascinating here. And it’s fascinating, as you say, when in that episode, where God says, pick your son, Abraham keeps going back to his quote, unquote, rejected son, who is the first born. So here we go. We are in Genesis 16. And Sarai, Abraham’s wife had bought him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid servant whose name was Hagar. And so, I said to Abram, look, God has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid, perhaps I shall have a child through her. And Abraham headed Saria’s request. So, I Abam’s wife took her maid Hagar the Egyptian, after Abraham had dwelt in the land of Canaan 10 years, and gave her to her husband Abraham as a concubine. I just want to note that the Hebrew here is וַתִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֛הּ לְאַבְרָ֥ם אִישָׁ֖הּ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה. So even though the translation is a concubine, I think Rabbi you’ll agree with me אִישָׁ֖הּ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה  is as a wife, in a sense. So, then it goes on. And he says, And he cohabitated with Hagar, and she conceived, and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered and her esteem. So here if you give me a little literary license, either Hagar God looked down upon Sarai, because actually, she had delivered and Sarai was barren, or Sarai is somehow projecting on to what Hagar must be thinking, because then it says in verse five, and Sarai said to Abram, the one done to me is your fault. She blames it on Abram, I, myself, put my maid in your bosom now that she sees that she is pregnant, and I am lowered in her esteem, God decide between you and me, Abram said to Sarai your maid is in your hands deal with her as you think right, then, so Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her. So there is a lot of focus later, when Ishmael is actually born, that he misbehaves, and he is thrown out of the house, but tellingly, even here, before he is born, Sarai sees a reflection in her Hagar’s attitude, and already acts in such a manner that Hagar ran away? That is pretty profound, don’t you think?

Adam Mintz  08:54

It is pretty profound, you know, think about what it means to run away. Here’s a maid servant. She’s has nothing. She comes from Egypt. She’s living in the home, let’s say of a successful man, you know, in Canaan, if she runs away, she’s nothing. Can you imagine, people lead like an au pair, who comes from a foreign country running away from the family that she’s working for? They’re helpless. So it’s a big deal that she runs away. It must have been pretty horrible.

Geoffrey Stern  09:24

So runaway is one way to look at it. But if the circumstances were such as though she had no choice, in a sense, she was exiled. She was pushed out and remember as a Jew, reading the Bible, I have a certain sensitivity to people who are exiled. So that becomes a fascinating double entendre here, and then it goes on … and remember, Ishmael is not born yet. A messenger of God found her by a Spring of water in the wilderness the spring on the road to Shur, (8) and said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” And she says, I’m running from my mistress. And he says, Go back to your mistress submit to her harsh treatment. And then the messenger of God says in verse 10, I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count, the Messenger of God said to her further, behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son, you shall call him Ishmael.  So, it’s almost a parallel story of a latest story that we will read, where a Sarah actually rejects and throws out Hagar. she also comes to a spring of water. And she also is given a blessing. This is almost like practice, like when children watch the scary movie over and over again, so that they can wrap their arms around it, but already, you get a sense of there is this respect, and this sensitivity, and this simpatico with Ishmael. The Rabbis said that there were only a few people who were named before they were born. And Ishmael is one. So here you shall call him Ishmael… he’s in a select few of people. As much as we know the later story just forgets about Ishmael. At this point. You could almost say to me, I don’t know where this story is going. I don’t know who’s going to be the hero.

Adam Mintz  11:49

Yeah, I mean, that’s good. Let me just to go back to just said somebody good things here. The fact that the story in this week’s power shot and next week’s PowerShell are basically you know, the same story. There’s only one difference in this week’s parsha Hagar gets banished in next week’s Parasha she doesn’t like Ishmael, Ishmael is a bad influence on her son. So, what happens to Hagar in both the cases is the same. But Sarah’s view is different. In this week’s parsha, you have this funny thing she’s competitive, you have to understand that right? He’s taking another wife. Not really, because clearly they had this idea of maidservants. But Sarah get’s jealous. Next week, she’s worried about the kid. And he’s a bad influence, the older son, which we can understand right… the teenage brother who gets the younger brother in trouble?

Geoffrey Stern  12:45

Absolutely. You know, normally, when we discuss a parsha, we don’t talk about what happens at toward the end. But I think that’s why my comment about Moby Dick and Melville is so important that Ismael is a figure who gets forgotten. But if you know all the stories coming in the future, we already can see stuff here, that gives impact. And if we only discussed it later on, we would forget this crucible, this beginning of the whole account. So, as I read on, it says, You shall call him Yishmael and God has paid heed to your suffering, he shall be a wild ass of a person, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him. Here again, we see another motif where both Ishmael and ESAV they have the kind of skill set that you might need going forward in Jewish tradition going to the Shoftim (Judges) going forward in conquering the land, they are the people that have the skill set to conquer the land to make their way and, and in all of their cases, they have their supporters in this particular case we’ll see that Abraham really is consistent in his love and his dedication to Ishmael. In the case of Esau and Yaakov. Again, we have a Yaakov kind of likes Esau because he’s out there hunting and stuff. So this is another kind of theme that I want us all to keep in mind. It’s kind of like we’re repeating this story over and over again to learn something from it.

Adam Mintz  14:44

Good. I mean, that’s all good. The fact that the father seems to favor the son who loses. Now you could explain that that the father always favors the older son, but you could also explain it the way you just explained it Riskin always says it that way that no the father saw something in the older son that maybe the father lacked or maybe he saw that that would be important for the future. And therefore, he actually preferred that. Now the older son did not win. But the father saw something that was special in the older son.

Geoffrey Stern  15:16

Absolutely. So, here we are, and we are starting to see some patterns. And the patterns are fascinating, but the story moves on. And the story then goes to and God said to Abraham in Genesis 17:; 15, As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. So changing Abraham’s name and Sarai name is almost like a rebirth. It’s שינוי שם משנה מזל and I will bless her indeed, and I will give her a son by her I will bless her that should give rise to nations rulers of people. Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed as he said to himself, can a child be born to a man 100 years old? Or can Sשרשי bear a child at 90? Verse 18. And Abraham said to God, Oh, that Ishmael might live by your favor. In the Hebrew it is ל֥וּ יִשְׁמָעֵ֖אל יִחְיֶ֥ה לְפָנֶֽיךָ. And the Ramban says its meaning is that he live and his seed shall always exist. So here, if you follow this interpretation, or even if you don’t, you would think that when the son from his wife is announced, his first thought would not be about his previous son, his son through his handmaid, so whether you give the Ramban’s interpretation or not, all of a sudden, Abraham consistently is thinking about Ishmael. But if you follow the Ramban, he’s saying, he wants to make sure that Ishmael is not displaced. I think that is fascinating. And then it goes on. And it continues in verse 20. And it says, as for Ishmael, God says, I have headed you, I hereby bless him, I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of 12 chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation. But my covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year, done speaking with him, God was gone from Abraham. So the meeting was over. But I had never realized Rabbi that God had promised Ishmael 12 tribes. I mean, in response to Abraham’s request, I just said never resonated to me. And it really does give power to these parallel stories and Abraham’s dual sense of love for his both his children.

Adam Mintz  18:29

Yeah, I mean, it’s really very powerful. And you know, it seems that Abraham… the second time, when he sends Hagar away with Yishmael that he sends them with that with a good knapsack full of stuff, which also is interesting.

Geoffrey Stern  18:44

Yeah. Okay. So so we get to the point now, that Yishmael is cast out. And at this point, we have a commentary like Rashi on 21: 10 says, the matter distressed Abraham greatly for it concerned a son of his וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד בְּעֵינֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ. And the story goes way beyond our parsha, and we can only be like a prequel to what happens. But to do that prequel what ultimately happens is that Hagar and Ishmael are cast out, Sarah again has an issue with them. In this case, she says that he is being Mitzachek… . He is fooling with Isaac. Some commentaries say that he was sexually perverse. Some say that he was making fun of him, which is the obvious explanation one modern day commentary says that he was Isaacing him …. he was trying to say that I am the firstborn. But whatever the case was, the concern of Sarah is I think I consistent that she wants to make sure that the covenant is with her son, Isaac. And the concern of Abraham is also consistent, that he is concerned about his other son, he loves him as well. And I think this is a powerful message. And, you know, I’ll go right to the end game rabbi, I’ve always been struck by the fact that on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out being exiled. And on the second day, we read the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, and you know, there are all these modern day. Commentaries, I’d love to find out the original source of who decided what the Torah reading was for each day.

Adam Mintz  21:13

Goes back to the Talmud, it’s about 2000 years old.

Geoffrey Stern  21:17

I don’t know if the Talmud gives a reason. But at the end of the day, if you get rid of all the commentaries, you’re dedicating day one, to the narrative of Ishmael. And a two is the narrative of Isaac, I mean, that’s the long and the short of it. Or to put it slightly differently. You’re dedicating day one to the test of Abraham with Hagar and Ishmael, and day two to the test of Abraham with his son Isaac. Fascinating.

Adam Mintz  21:50

That is fascinating. And the lesson of the banishment of Ishmael is the opposite lesson as the Akedah right, so that’s interesting, all interesting.

Geoffrey Stern  22:04

So it is fascinating. So what I want to do is it’s fascinating where this story goes, in Genesis 25, and this is way beyond a today’s Pasha. It says that Sarah dies after the akedah, and that Abraham then marries a woman named Keturah. And the tradition is that that is Hagar. She was named Ketorah according to Rashi, because her deeds were as beautiful (sweet) as incense (Ketoreth) (Genesis Rabbah 61). One of the Midrashim says she was שֶׁמְקֻטֶּרֶת מִצְווֹת וּמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים full of mitzvot. And this takes on a whole new story in the later Pirkei D’Rav Eliezer and i enjoin you to all see the source notes on Sefira where I quote at length Pirkei D’Rab Eliezer which was written in the much later in the eight hundreds. That says that, basically what happened was that during Sarah’s life, Abraham had asked, could he go visit his son Ishmael. I mean, it almost sounds like after a divorce, where you asked your wife can I go visit my child from my previous marriage, and in Perkei D’Rav Eliezer 30 that he gets permission from Sarah to go visit is Ishmael as long as he doesn’t get off the camel, meaning to say I think that, you know, don’t stay there, don’t plant any seeds there. Make sure that you come back. And it’s a long story. And he goes to the wilderness of Paran. And he meets his wife. And he says, Where is Ishmael and Hagar and she says they’re out, you know, picking dates. And he says, Well, I’m a visitor, could you feed me? And she goes, I got no food. And to make a long story short, he says, could you give a message to smell and tell him that an old man came and that he should basically change the entrance to his house; his threshold. And according to Perkei D’Rav Natan Ishmael comes back and goes you know what happened? And she says this old man came and he asked about you and he told me to change the threshold of my house. And he understood, Ishmael understood that meant to change his wife, so he changes his wife. And again, Abraham comes back a while later. And this time the story repeats itself. And this time he says to the wife, do you have anything to feed me, and she feeds him as it happens, she feeds him and he tells her to tell Ishmael about this. And Ishmael is told that his threshold is good. And that’s the end of the story in Perkei D’Rav Natan. The amazing thing Rabbi that I discovered is that there is a Muslim version of this story. And the scholars all try, they’re crunching their heads, they’re, they’re there twiddling their beards to find out, which was the original story, and that interests me less. But in the Muslim version that is in the Sefira notes, it almost goes pretty much the same. In that version, Hagar is no longer alive, he comes to visit his son. And again, he tells her to change wives, they change wives. But the difference is that in the Muslim version, his feet are washed by her, they come to a place called Maquom. And then he helps him build a temple. And according to Muslim tradition, this is Abraham and Ishmael building the Kaaba in Mecca. And there is part of the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, that involves ceremonies that kind of re-enact this whole episode. So, it is absolutely fascinating on a number of levels. Number one, since we are in the parsha which is about pilgrimage, we can’t but say that Haj is the same as the Hebrew word Hag, which is the word for three times a year of making the pilgrimage. So, we are united at that level. But to me, it is just fascinating that we share this story. And I think there are multiple places where Islam has either preserved Midrashim, or introduced Midrashim that were picked up by the rabbis. But it is it is absolutely fascinating how we share the story of a smell. Have you heard this before?

Adam Mintz  27:54

Yes, I have heard this before. The fact that there are shared traditions between the Jews and the Muslims is not surprising. You see, the Muslims believe that they are line when through Ishmael. So therefore, Ishmael needs to be the winner. Not Isaac, now the Torah has Isaac is the winner. But what the Muslim traditions stories have, they say even though Isaac was the winner, but he was only what appeared to be the winner. Everybody thought he was the winner. But actually quietly, what Abraham was doing was he was going out to the desert. And he was building Mecca, you know, the temple in Mecca. So, it’s really a very interesting thing. You know, how can you have Ishmael be the winner? When the Torah says that he’s not the winner? And the answer is that they have this this underlying current, which says that Abraham was more interested. Now, it’s not made up. And this is the point, Geoffrey that you made at the beginning. And that is, it’s not made up. Abraham likes Ishmael. He may even prefer Ishmael. So, the bottom line is that from the Torah, obviously, even though Abraham prefers Ishmael, but Isaac is the one who’s chosen Isaac is the one who has the Akeda, and all those kinds of things. But the idea that Abraham should prefer Ishmael, it’s not as if the Moslems were making things up out of thin air, there really was something that was substantial about all of this.

Geoffrey Stern  29:33

So we don’t have a lot of time. But let me move it to the third religion of Abraham, in Galatians, which is about Paul otherwise known as Saul, a student of Rabbi Gamliel… Paul says, and he’s talking to a bunch of Jews who want to keep this new version of Judaism for only the circumcised and they want to keep keeping the laws, and he brings up Ishmael and Isaac. And he says that, Isaac was the son of promise. Isaac was the promised child. And Ishmael was that natural child, we’ve heard that concept before. And he compares the Jews to the older son. By the way, when you hear the Pope or whatever, saying we love the Jewish people, they are older brothers, implicitly saying that we are the oldest sons, the older brothers we’re not chosen. But that’s another topic. But the fascinating thing is, and I don’t want to comment on Paul or the New Testament, and the whole concept of supersessionism, which is where they took over the covenant. But it is fascinating to me, that Paul does the obvious. He compares the Jews to the exiled Ishmael… he says that you got the Torah in Sinai in Arabia. And we have Midrashim that say we got the torah in neutral land outside of the land of Israel. It is fascinating that we, as the Jews could easily be compared to the rejected son, who happens to be the entitled son, who is rejected by our tradition. It’s a fantastic irony. And the one thing that comes to my mind is Paul talks about the first wife, and at this point, we should all be confused, because we don’t know for Abraham who the first wife or the first mother is, and last week’s parsha we had an amazing Haftorah which happened to be my Bar Mitzvah haftora and it talks about רׇנִּ֥י עֲקָרָ֖ה לֹ֣א יָלָ֑דָה, that the barren women shall rejoice because they are the blessed and at the end of the day rabbi, what we do find throughout all of Genesis is the miracle of birth. And that ultimately, is what we are celebrating here. Whether it’s the miracle of birth from someone barren, or a surrogate, we are all joined at the hip. And I just find that the story of Ishmael who ultimately was loved by the rabbi’s. We have rabbis called Rabbi Ishmael multiple Rabbis called Rabbi Ishmael we have no rabbis called Esau, you know, so, there is this love relationship and this kindred experience with Ishmael that I feel we cannot ignore and comes through loud and clear in this parsha and the narrative to follow.

Adam Mintz  33:16

Thank you so much Geoffrey. This is an amazing topic. It really there’s so much food for thought enjoy Lech Lecha everybody. And we look forward to seeing you next week. Shabbat shalom.

Geoffrey Stern  33:26

Shabbat Shalom to you all.

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Listen to last year’s Lech Lecha Madlik Podcast: Abraham’s Epic Journey and Our Own

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