Friday, December 16, 2005


A Struggle of Conscience

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

The weekly portion describes one of the first fights in human history. It was the mighty clash between a mortal and a heavenly creature, and it was clear from the start that the former stood no chance of winning.

On the one side of the battleground was Jacob our father, a simple tent dweller...
On the other, an angel of G-d who had descended from heaven...

Jacob struggled with the angel through the last watch of a long, dark night. There was no crowd to cheer or jeer as in modern day fights. There was no direct T.V. coverage or advertising nor a referee. This was a completely different kind of fight. The fight ended at daybreak and the description of the fight is sparse. The Torah records only a very heavy and effective blow that Jacob sustained on his thigh, causing him to limp for the rest of his days.

Jacob struggled with the angel through the night, and was even injured, but it was he who triumphed in the end. The angel himself testified to Jacob's victory: "Not Jacob shall any more be called thy name, but Israel, for though hast striven with G-d and with men, and hast prevailed" (GENESIS XXXIII, XXIX).

And yet, paradoxically, the winner of the contest was the one who left the battlefield injured. He was the one limping from the thigh while the vanquished returned to heaven healthy and intact.

How can we say that that the injured party won the battle and the loser returned home safe and sound?

It is quite possible to interpret Jacob's victory in a different way. It is clear to us all that the winner is not the one who receives the least blows. If this were the case Jacob would have been the loser. Jacob's victory rests in the fact that he knew how to fight against all the odds even if exposed to blows and terrible wounds.

However, it is likely that he did not fight only with a real being, but also with the "Esau" who was on his mind (our sages already testify that Jacob fought that night with "Esau's guardian angel"). It is quite possible that he wrestled that night with his own conscience and with the doubts in his heart...Perhaps there was some process of repentance and purification during that struggle following the incidents which separated the two brothers.

When we wrestle with our past sins and our fears for the future, we always emerge strengthened, even if we were battered in the process. In a struggle such as this, victory is sweet, even if we are maimed and scarred.

The fact that the name which Jacob received after the struggle (Israel) shows his talent in fighting ("for thou hast striven") and there is no reference at all to his victory. Perhaps he could have been given another name, like "Gabriel" ("for thou hast defeated G-d).

But the emphasis is on the struggle rather than on the victory. Because a battle over essential issues, like the one Jacob endured that night against his own conscience, is a victory in itself.

Friday, December 09, 2005


Reaching for Heaven

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

A third of man's life is devoted to dreaming. Thus, a man in his sixties has already dreamt for twenty years. How unique can one dream be?

And Ya'akov went out from Beer Sheva, and went toward Haran. And he lighted on a certain place and tarried there all night because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place and put them under his head. And he dreamed and behold a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of G-d ascending and descending on it. And behold the Lord stood above it and said 'I am the Lord G-d of Avraham thy father and the G-d of Yitzhak. the land on which thou liest to thee I will give it, and to thy seed ... (Genesis 28:10-12)

Over the years, hundreds of interpretations have been given to Ya'acov's dream. The Midrash says that in Gematria the word "Ladder" (Sulam) equals 130 as the word "Sinai" (B'reshit Rabba 68,13). By showing him a ladder in his dream, G-d hinted "If your descendents keep the Torah, then they will ascend in the same way that the angels ascended, but if they desert the Torah, then they will descend in the way that the angels descended".

However, this dream has additional repercussions. It is possible that the ladder is Ya'acov himself and the angels that ascend and descend represent Ya'acov's entry into maturity. Until this point, our father Ya'acov has been shown as an adolescent seeking his identity. Sometimes he appears as young, lacking experience and hesitant while at other times he appears as brave and enterprising.

After the dream, Ya'acov takes a vow saying "If G-d will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I come back to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my G-d..."
(Genesis 28:20-1)

Until now, Ya'acov has shown himself to be cunning and exploitative. He knew how to obtain his brother's birthright, he also attained his father's blessing by unfair means, and it seems that he thought that he could exploit G-d as well. Ya'acov's vow is a kind of provocation: "Lord of the world...if you protect me, then you'll gain my belief". However, Ya'acov understands very quickly that there is a lot more to learn. He comes to know his uncle Lavan who is in a totally "different league" of exploiters. Lavan "pulls the wool over his eyes" intentionally and gives him his older daughter (Leah) instead of Rachel whom Ya'acov loves.

Who knows, perhaps this is the turning point in Ya'acov's life. Ya'acov discovers the taste of integrity and decency, establishes a family and his economic status. Ya'acov begins to ascend the rungs of the ladder and understands that cunning may very well come back as a boomerang, blow for blow. After twenty years, Ya'acov faces up to his father-in-law and announces his intention to return to the Land of Ca'anan.

The foot of the ladder was on the earth and the top reached the heavens. G-d was stationed on it and waited for him...He expected Ya'acov to ascend, the completion of the process of maturing.

One third of man's life is devoted to dreaming. Come let us use the remaining two thirds so that we may ascend the ladder of our lives.

Friday, December 02, 2005


The Brawn and the Brain

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

When we consider strange phenomena in the field of genetics, we can think of Jacob and Esau, the heroes of this Torah portion. How is it possible for twins to be so different?

One was hairy (Esau) and the other smooth (Jacob). One (Esau) was "a cunning hunter, a man of the field" while the second (Jacob) was "a plain man, dwelling in tents". Esau's strength was in his hands while Jacob's strength was in his voice.

The birth of those twins was not only the beginning of their lives but also the beginning of a new era in the history of man. Jacob and Esau are the archetypes of two completely different world views: the world of physical power and the world of the mind; the world of the sword and the world of the voice.

One can be the son of Esau as a parent and also as a spouse, and one can be Jacob's son as a teacher and also as a nation. If my soul is controlled by force, I am Esau's son, but if it is controlled by my mind, I am Jacob's.

It is true that power and the sword arouse fear and respect, but the brain and the voice have the potential of eternity.

"The voice is Jacob's voice but the hands are the hands of Esau." (Genesis XXVII, 22) That was Isaac's reaction after feeling his son Jacob. Why didn't Isaac manage to recognize him?

The reason lies not only in Isaac's blindness nor only in the fact that Rebecca dressed Jacob's hands in goatskin. In my opinion there is another, more important reason.

Isaac did not recognize Jacob because Jacob had lost his identity. The moment he took on Esau's hands, he lost his identity. He had the voice but also the hands. He had the mind but now he also had the power.

We, the descendants of Jacob, have undergone a similar process since the establishment of the state. After thousands of years of physical weakness, we too became able to use our hands (and we are all proud of that). After thousands of years during which we heard strength only in our voice, we became a strong nation also in the military sense. After thousands of years of writing books and creating prayers, we became arms exporters.

Now we have strong hands, and that's good, because without them we would not survive as a nation. But for all that, today the people of Israel are experiencing a deep identity crisis. Our hands have become so necessary that we have forgotten the power of the voice. And there are still many who think it is possible to improve our world and restore our security only through force.
But force threatens the mind. As soon as we see might as an end and not as a means, it becomes destructive. Let us not forget that if we need to use our hands, it is only so as to safeguard our voice, the voice of Jacob.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Lech Lecha

Stars and Comets
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

I would like to speak today about a man who was a real "zero". (Perhaps the Yiddish expression defining a person as "Gurnisht" would be more appropriate.) The person that I am referring to is Lot, a man with a great pedigree, the Patriarch Abraham's nephew.

According to the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah, 41:6) Lot was similar to Abraham in appearance (in the words of the Midrash: "of like countenance") and in other ways as well:
They were both born in the same place.
They were both born into the same family.
They were both shepherds with flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, and were tent dwellers.

Aside from this, however, they were as different as the distance between east and west.

Suddenly, a dispute arose:

"And there was a strife between the herdsmen of Abram's cattle and the herdsmen of Lot's cattle. And the Canaanite and the Perezzite dwelt then in the land. And Abram said unto Lot: "Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdsmen and thy herdsmen; for we are brethren. Is not the whole land before thee? Separate thyself, I pray thee, from me; if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou take the right hand, then I will go to the left" (Genesis 13:7-9)

Lot looked towards Sodom and Gomorrah and saw, verdant, fragrant, fertile land. Why should he pay any attention to their citizens?

There he would raise his daughters, among the corruption and crime...Was this of any importance when it was a place to make money?

Yes, absolutely. But he thought only of the future of his flocks and herds.

Abraham distanced himself and remained with his wife and the members of his household in the Land of Canaan, perhaps less fertile, but sufficient for raising his sons.

And so I say that Lot was truly a zero, or "gurnisht". Perhaps he was meant to be a man of greatness, in the fashion of the Patriarch Abraham, but his set of priorities was wrong:

Sheep and cattle in first place - daughters in second place.
Money in first place - education in second place.

Sodom and Gomorrah were, from his perspective, the place to realize his dreams.

Who today remembers Lot? What mark did Lot leave on the history of mankind in general, or on Judaism in particular?

I once read that there are people who are compared to stars, and others who are compared to comets.

Comets pass. They appear and are remembered on distant occasions. Stars are always in view.

There are many people who can be compared to comets; perhaps even Lot is one of them. They pass through life and leave behind no mark.

But there are only a few who can be compared to stars, remembered constantly throughout the years.

Lot was the complete opposite of our father Abraham...a comet as opposed to an eternal star. (It was no accident that G-d took Abraham outside to look at the stars.)

So much alike, yet so different. So close, yet so distant.

What was done with his pedigree? Not everyone is from the house of our Patriarch Abraham, but Abraham adopted Lot, just like a son!

Lot is one of the first characters in the Bible with a great pedigree that didn't succeed in taking advantage of it.

Abraham was the teacher of that generation. Everyone learned from his ways and measures, except Lot.

A great pedigree doesn't necessarily insure "expected results" or a "praiseworthy product".

There is a tale of a man who went to visit his rabbi.

He was suspected of fraud and theft, and thought that the rabbi could help put an end to his troubles. The rabbi received him into his office, looked at him and asked: "Who are you?".

This same man answered the rabbi that he was from the family of one of the great rabbis and scholars, and that even his father was an exalted rabbi.

The rabbi looked at him again and said: "I asked 'Who are you', not 'Who is your father'...!".

Sometimes, even if your father is a "ten", you can still be a "zero".

Even if you are from the house of the Patriarch Abraham, you can still be "gurnisht". Relations never confer rights.