Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha



Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim

The 19th-20th Century American Jewish Adventure: History Lessons for 21st Century Jewish Life


VaYishlach…Genesis 35:1-15




HOW is Jacob’s struggle to live out his new name our inheritance?

WHAT are the challenge & the promise of living the legacy of Yisrael?



REMEZ…“Casting aside old paradigms, they transformed their faith, reinventing [American] Judaism in an attempt to make it…more meaningful, more sensitive to the concerns of the day.” [J. SARNA]

v.1  God said to Jacob: Arise, go up to Bet-El, and stay there—and there build an altar to the God who appeared to you when you were fleeing from Esau, your brother

Prof L. KASSHe must “rise” and “go up”…?  Thus changing his place physically, and by implication, spiritually as well.  The move to Bet-El marks the beginning of the end of the Jacob cycle.

v.2   So Jacob said to his household and all who were with him: Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst, purify yourselves—change your garment

RASHI…That is, which are in your possession from the booty of Shechem.  After all, where else would they come from?

S.R.HIRSCH… Elohai HaNey’char—gods of strangeness… This refers to any characteristics that are foreign to Jews; the character of

the gentile acquired in foreign lands as opposed to Jewish character nurtured in the holy land.

RADAK…  The spoils of Shechem include silver and gold, jewelry engraved with figures of gods that were then worshipped.  Jacob’s household took them only to wear and display, not intending them as a means of worship.  Nevertheless, Jacob now made it clear that his household should derive no benefit whatsoever from articles which were used as idols, as it says:

“You shall not desire their gold and silver, and so nothing of that which was consigned to condemnation shall remain

in your hands.”  [Deut 7:25; 13:18]

HOFFMAN“Ha’Chlifu Simloteychem”   Included in this are the “teraphim” which Rachel had stolen from her

father, [Gen 31:19] as well as other idolatrous artifacts might have had in their possession from life in Aram Naharayim.

SARNA…  It is not clear whether this act, together with the clothes-changing, belongs to the rite of renunciation of idols and reflects the widespread biblical notion of their polluting effect….It is also possible that the rites are attendant upon the impending pilgrimage to Bet-El, in which case purification, by means of immersion, would effectuate the passage from profane to sacred space.  Or the purification might be in preparation for an experience with God, as required at Sinai.

MUNK…Note the analogy with the order given by Moses before the Revelation at Sinai: “He sanctified the people and they washed their clothes.” [Ex 19:14]  For the family of Jacob, the ascent to Beth-El, where God had revealed himself to the patriarch, has the same significance as the assembly at Mt Sinai…


v.3   Come, let us go up to Bet-El, and I will build an altar there to the God who has answered me when I was in distress & who’s been with me wherever I’ve gone

ALSHECH… When Jacob originally dreamed at Bet-El, he found, upon waking, that the many stones under which he

slept had become a single unit.  Now he is commanded to build an altar, a structure requiring many stones.  He was afraid

this symbolized that his sons were not of the same persuasion as he himself, that there were idols hiding amongst them.

Thus he commanded his family to cleanse themselves of anything resembling idolatry.

v.4       They gave to Jacob all the alien gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the terebenth near Shechem.

ETZ HAYIM…This procedure is found nowhere else in the Bible’s laws and narratives relating to the disposal of pagan images.  The method described in Deut 7:25 is not burial but utter destruction.

RAMBAN…Since the Law requires that idols be ground up and scattered to the wind, or sunk into the sea where they

will forever be [Avodah Zarah 43b]  why did Jacob merely bury them?  It seems that Jacob’s sons did not take the idols

until the Shechemites had renounced them, thus making their use permissible….That Jacob still ordered them to rid themselves of these idols was an extra-halachic act of piety to add to their spiritual purity…Accordingly, burial in this

case was sufficient, since the idols were legally permissible, Jacob’s intent was to simply hide them.

v.10    God said to him, “You whose name is Jacob, you shall be called Jacob no more, rather Israel shall be your name.” Thus He named him Israel.

IBN EZRA…You shall no longer be known only as Jacob, but Israel shall also be your name.

TALMUD…  Bar Kappara taught: Whoever calls Avraham Avram transgresses a positive commandment, since it says: “Your name shall be Avraham.” [Gen 17:5]  R’ Eliezer says: He transgresses a negative commandment, as it says: “Neither

shall your name be any more called Avram. [Gen 17:5]  But if that is so, then the same should apply to one who calls

Sarah Sarai?  In her case, the Holy One said to Avraham, “As for Sarai, your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but rather Sarah shall be her name.” [Gen 17:15]  Yet if that is so, the same should apply to one who calls Jacob Jacob?  However in his case, there is

a difference, because Torah restored the name Jacob to him, as it is written: “God spoke to Israel calling in a vision of

night ‘Jacob, Jacob’ And he answered “Hineni.”[Gen. 46:2]  [Berachot, 13a]

R’ Theodore LEWIS…Jacob’s night struggle is one that constantly recurs  in the succeeding generations of his descendants.  R’ Shmuel bar Nachman taught: The angel appeared to Jacob as a heathen, while R’ Shmuel bar Achah

Asserted that the angel appeared in the guise of a scholar. [TALMUD, Chullin 91]…Sometimes Jacob’s descendants were opposed

by heathens who tried to subdue them by the exercise of brute force.  Attacks were directed at their physical destruction,

yet their powerful enemies found it impossible to wipe the Jews off the face of this earth…At times, the enemy of our

people appeared in the guise of a scholar…recognizing that if Israel becomes indifferent to his ideals or cynical to

his spiritual responsibilities, then disintegration of the people could eventually ensue…







D’RASH…   “ In a creative process of collective self-fashioning, Jews reinterpreted their own culture

and history to fit the circumstances of American Jewish life.” [B. WENGER]


A Bintel Brief…

For more than 80 years the Jewish Daily Forward’s legendary advice column, “A Bintel Brief,” [A Bundle of Letters] dispensed shrewd, practical and fair-minded advice to its readers.  Created in 1906 to help bewildered Eastern European Jewish immigrants learn about their new country, the column also gave them a forum for seeking advice and support in the face of problems ranging from wrenching spiritual dilemmas to petty family squabbles….They form an oral record not only of the varied problems of Jewish American immigrant life, but also of the catastrophic events of the first half of our century.

1909, October

Dear Mr. Editor:

I was born in a small town in Russia, and until I was 16 I studied in Talmud Torahs and yeshivas, but when I came to America I changed quickly.  I was influenced by the progressive newspapers, the literature, I developed spiritually and became what some back in the old country would call idol worship—I am a freethinker.  I meet with progressive people and feel comfortable in their company; I agree with their convictions.

But the nature of my feelings is remarkable.  Every year when the month of Elul rolls around, with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur coming, my heart grows heavy and sad.  A melancholy descends upon me, a longing form “home” gnaws at my breast.  I wander about through the streets, lost in thought, depressed.

When I go past synangogue during these days and hear a cantor chanting the prayers, I become so gloomy that I cannot endure it.  My memory goes back home, to my happiest days of childhood.  I see clearly before me my small town, the little pond, the woods…I recall my childhood friends and our sweet childlike faith.  My heart is constricted, and I begin to run like a madman till the tears stream from my eyes…

These emotions and moods have become stronger over the years and I decided to go to synagogue  I went these High Holidays not to pray to God but to heal and refresh my aching soul with the cantor’s sweet melodies, and this had an unusually good effect on me.

Sitting in the shul among landsleit and listening to the good cantor, I forget my unhappy life, the dirty shop, my boss, the bloodsucker, and my pale wife and children. All my America with its hurry-up life was quickly forgotten.

I am a member of a Progressive Society, and since I’m known there as an outspoken freethinker, they began to criticize me for my act.  The members do not want to hear of my personal emotions, and they will not understand that there are people in whom the memories of home are sometimes stronger than newfound convictions.

And where can one hide on Yom Kippur?

There are many of us, like me.  They don’t go to work…Perhaps if there were a meeting hall where we could gather to hear a concert, a lecture or something.  What is your opinion of this? Awaiting your response, I remain.

Your Reader……S.R.



No one can tell another what to do with himself on Yom Kippur.  If one is drawn to the synagogue this is his choice.  Naturally, a genuinely sincere freethinker is not drawn to the Synagogue.  The writer of this letter is so filled with memories of childhood; he wants to go home.  This is why the cantor’s melodies influence hom so strongly.  Who among us is not moved by a religious melody remembered from his youth?  This, however, has no bearing on loyalty to one’s convictions.  On Yom Kippur, a freethinker can spend his time in a library or with friends.  On this day he should not flaunt himself in the eyes of religious people.  There is no sense in arousing their feelings.  Every man has a right to live.  The pious man has as much right to his religion as a freethinker to his atheism.  To parade one’s acts in a disingenuous way that insult the religious feelings of the pious, especially on Yom Kippur, the day they hold most holy, is simply inhuman.




SOD…   “ A nation dying for thousands of years,” the great Jewish philosopher Simon Rawidowicz once observed, “means a living nation.  Our incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, beginning anew.”  [Jonathan SARNA, American Judaism, pg 374]


Rabbi Howard APOTHAKER…

When their names are changed from Avram and Sarai to Avraham and Sarah, the Torah does not revert to the use of their former names.  But even after Jacob’s name change to Israel, the text regularly refers to him as Jacob…Referring to Jacob’s struggle with the ‘angel,’ Rabbi Kerry Olitzky notes that the angel’s role is simply to expose Jacob to his fuller self.  Jacob, the passive and scheming tent-dweller co-exists with Israel, the struggler of Divine discovery.

Perhaps that is part of the reason, when we get up in the morning that we say:

“Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mish’k’notecha Yisrael.”

It is essential to identify the duality and try to come to terms with the tenuous balance we sometimes manage to achieve between what goes on in our own “tent” and what goes on in the “mishkan” of our lives, the place in us in which the Divine dwells.


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