The story of Yaakov’s dream dialogues with a much earlier story, the story of the Tower of Babel. There, the tower builders set out to “make a name for themselves”. They would build a tower—a ziggurat—with its top in the heavens. But the true encounter cannot be forced. Yaakov’s vision comes to him when he is at his most vulnerable—alone, at night, in a strange place, far from home and fleeing his brother. Asleep and helpless to defend himself even against dreams. While the tower builders constituted a single unified society bent on wresting the secrets of the heavens, Yaakov is one man, alone in a stony land, suspended between a painful past and an uncertain future.
What are we to make of the conspiracy on the part of Rivka and Yaakov to steal the blessing that Yitzhak meant to give to his eldest son, Esav? Surely this is treachery of the highest order! What does the Torah itself think of this act? While the Torah offers no immediate moral judgement of Yaakov’s actions, it will become increasingly clear that there right and wrong are rarely clear cut, and that Yaakov’s deception will have to be paid for.
Who the mother of one’s child is matters in more ways that one can ever rationally know. God doesn’t tell Avraham why Sarah must be the mother of his heir, but we readers begin to suspect that she holds the key to the future. Avraham seems to have learned this by the time he sends his servant back to Terah’s tribe to seek a wife for Yitzhak. The servant specifies a test for the bride-to-be: that she not only offer him a drink from her pitcher, but also care for his thirsty camels, at considerable investment of effort. In other words, he devises a test for kindness—kindness to the stranger and to beasts of burden.
When God says of Avraham: For I have known him, that he will teach his children to love justice and compassion” God is in effect saying, I have a stake in the future of this nation, and I know they’ll survive as a nation. But more, we are told what the rules of the game are, and to pick our heroes accordingly. After all, God did!
Through the Covenant of Circumcision we consciously declare that humanity is meant to transcend evolution—history is evolution by other means, just as culture is instinct by other means. Only when human beings become partners with God in their own creation, do they become truly human.
In Parashat Noah, God promises that the natural order will remain in balance, with season following season. Now humans must ensure that their society also stays in balance. They will need to keep man’s wild side from breaking loose and destroying the world. If God is to forfeit the solution of erasing all life because of man’s wrongs, man must step in to make sure that justice is done, and balance is preserved.
Sefer BaMidbar is the story of a great test: Can the disparate tribes of Israel put into practice the lessons learned during the revelation at Sinai and the subsequent building of the Mishkan. Can they forge themselves into a nation capable of conquering their ancestral homeland and building a just and lasting society?
Hiding between the seemingly dry—and to the modern ear, somewhat esoteric—laws of Parashat Metzora is a fascinating insight into the nature of reality and human knowledge. The laws of the “plague-afflicted house” and the zav teach us about living in a world where certain things are in principle unmeasurable, and where observation can change reality.
Parashat Shminit: What was the crime of Nadav and Avihu, who were consumed by divine fire while offering incense? It turns out that by comparing this incident with a later one, in which Moshe strikes a rock to bring forth water, we can learn a lot about miracles, holiness, and leadership.
In our parashah, the phrase: “Beit Yisrael”, the House of Israel appears for only the second time in the entire Torah. The first was in regard to the manna, where the Torah tells us that, not knowing what it was, “the House of Israel” called it “man”, that is, “what’s this?” Is there a common denominator in these two cases, or is this merely a coincidental quirk of style? I believe that not only is there something in common between these two appearances, but that the commonality has much to teach us.