Wrestling with the Divine

Parashat Vayishlach

This week’s parasha continues a theme we saw in last week’s parasha, Vayetze, which began and ended with the mentioning of angels. So too our parasha continues in the same venue. In ancient times, there were no chapter and verse breaks within the text. The previous parasha ends with Jacob being met by angels, leading him to call the place Machanayim – referring to the encampment of G-d. Immediately this week’s parasha begins with the next verse (Gen. 32:4), with the words vayishlach Ya’akov malachim … and Ya’akov sent forth messengers ahead of him.

Since the word malachim can mean both human messengers and angles, the rabbis understand this verse to refer to the angels in the previous verse. Therefore, Ya’akov sends forth both physical and angelic messengers from the camp ahead of him to prepare for meeting his brother Esav. There is a spiritual and physical preparation.

However, in between these two events, a mysterious encounter occurs. In the middle of the night Jacob crosses the Yabok River, and is left alone. A mysterious being comes and wrestles with Ya’akov until day break, at which time this mysterious figure blesses Jacob and gives him the name Israel:

“For you have wrestled with G-d and man, and have prevailed (Gen. 32:29).”

In ancient Near Eastern understanding, the crossing of a river was a symbol of new beginnings and a new start – a sort of rebirth. That is why there is a purposeful connection with the name of the river (Yabok) and the word vaye’avek – to wrestle/struggle. It was here, at the river of a new beginning in Jacob’s life that he also received a new name – and a new identity – Israel.

This was a test for Jacob and a preparation for a new beginning in his life, to go from being Ya’akov to becoming Israel – the father of the twelve tribes and a great patriarch of the Jewish people. It was a physical and spiritual preparation.

Although Rashi and other sages identify this mysterious figure as the angel of Esav, there are also understandings of this figure being more than just an angel. A clue to this is in the Hebrew itself. Not only does it mention that he struggles “with G-d and with man,” but his name is changed to Israel. The definition of “Israel” is to wrestle/struggle with G-d. Although you can argue that it may just be figuratively, there are two more hints.

Ya’akov asks the being its name, and the response is interesting, “Why are you asking my name?” Alone it does not mean anything. However, when one understands that the sacred Name of G-d is often referred to “as the Name that no one knows,” and the reverence given to the Name of G-d in Jewish understanding, the reference should be obvious. And the last clue that this is more than just an angel is in the name Ya’akov gives to the place afterwards – P’ni El – the face of G-d:

“Because I have seen G-d face to face, yet my life is spared (Gen. 32:31).”

The idea of G-d taking on a physical form is not unheard of in the Torah, or in ancient Jewish understanding. Within this sort of incarnation is an obvious Messianic connection. It is not ridiculous to understand this mysterious encounter as a physical and spiritual struggle between Jacob and HaShem.

Parashat Vayishlach teaches us that through wrestling with G-d, and striving for G-d’s purpose for each one of us, we will enter into a new beginning for what lies ahead.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

In 1789, George Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation with these words:

“Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be….”

A couple years ago I read an article by Jewish radio personality, Dennis Prager, titled, “Here’s why Thanksgiving is good for the Jews.”

He points out that Thanksgiving is one of the most widely observed holidays, especially within the Jewish community. The majority of Jews across the spectrum observe Thanksgiving – from non-observant to Orthodox. The reason, according to Prager, “it is quintessentially American, it is deeply religious without being denominational and it is based entirely on one of the most important, and noble, traits a human being can have – gratitude.”

In an age when we are often not thankful enough for the blessings we have, Thanksgiving is another reminder that we have so much to be thankful for.

From our home to yours, we wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Chag Sameach!

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Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

Parashat Vayetzei

Parashat Vayetzei begins with one of the most mysterious passages in the Torah. While Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esav, he stopped at a certain place to spend the night. After laying his head down on a rock and falling asleep, he had a dream. In Ya’akov’s dream, he saw a vision of a ladder that reached from the ground into heaven, and angels were ascending and descending upon it. Additionally G-d spoke to him, and relayed the promise of giving the land of Israel to him and his descendants, that He would multiply Jacob’s offspring, and that through his descendants, all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. G-d concluded by reassuring Jacob that He would not abandon him, for He had made a promise with him.

Throughout Jewish history, commentators have argued over the exact meaning of Jacob’s vision. Interestingly, the vagueness of the Hebrew does not help in understanding it any better. For instance, the phrase, “and the angels of HaShem were ascending and descending upon it” could also be rendered as “the angels of HaShem ascended and descended upon him.

Based on this reading of the text, Jacob represents the medium by which G-d’s blessings are imparted into the world, and whose descendant’s (the twelve tribes who also are birthed in this parasha) further embody G-d’s blessings in the earth. The story of the sulam Ya’akov, of Jacob’s ladder, is a reminder of G-d’s direct interaction into the affairs of humanity.

Lastly, the parasha also begins and ends with with the mentioning of angels. At the beginning of the portion we read about the angels who ascend and descend upon the ladder in the dream, and at the very end of the portion, of the angels who come to meet Ya’akov after he left his father-in-law, Lavan (Gen. 32:2-3). It is interesting to note this specific mentioning of angels both at the beginning and the end of this parasha. For it additionally shows G-d’s involvement in the trials that are attested to in-between these angelic encounters.

The first mention is almost a “changing of the guard,” if you will. The description is that the angels first ascend, and then descend. The seemingly opposite of what we would expect. This leads us to believe that there were angelic escorts with Ya’akov as he fled his home. In the dream, Jacob was given the ability to see those angels who were with him ascend back into heaven, as a new host of heaven descend to meet him for the next stage of his journey. For the journey ahead would be full of trials as he is tricked and taken advantage of repeatedly by Lavan. The new angelic escorts would be with Ya’akov to teach him what he needed to be a Patriarch of Israel, and to turn what Lavan meant for evil, into blessings for Ya’akov and his family.

As a patriarch of the Jewish people, Ya’akov served as an embodiment, and vehicle, through which G-d’s blessings would be imparted into the earth. This interpretation is further related and clarified in the Brit Chadashah. In the gospel of John, Yeshua speaks to a man named Natanel, and says to him:

“Yes indeed! I tell you that you will see heaven opened up and the angels of G-d ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1:51).”

In this passage Yeshua clarifies that now he would be the embodiment and vehicle of G-d’s work in the earth. That through him is access to the heavenly realms.

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Choosing to be God Conscious

Parashat Toldot

What does this week’s Torah portion teach us about personal choices?

“Esau said to Jacob, ‘Pour some of that red stuff for me now, for I am exhausted. Jacob said, ‘Sell, as this day, your birthright to me.’ And Esau said, ‘Look, I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright?’ … Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, he ate and drank, got up and left; and thus, Esau spurned the birthright (Genesis 25:27-34).”

Esau was faced with a choice, soup or a birthright? When offered the opportunity for spiritual blessings and rewards, the only thing that mattered to him was his own immediate physical needs. Esau ended up selling his birthright to Jacob, for he had no regard for the spiritual. So why does he still end up hating and wanting to kill Jacob? (Genesis 27:41)

Just like Esau, we too often make irrational decisions in the spur of the moment, and end up hating ourselves and others as a result. We often cast off spiritual values in an attempt to satisfy an immediate need. Yet in the end it is futile. The thing we once cast off ends up becoming the thing we most desperately desire. And when we cannot have it, we end up hating those who do have it, resulting in a vicious cycle.

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to G-d (Philippians 4:6).”

Instead of living by our own irrationality, like Esau, we must become like Jacob. We should never by too anxious to make a decision. But rather, we need to be “G-d conscious.” We need to constantly be reminded of a greater spiritual reality.

Yehudah HaNasi states, “Consider three things and you will not fall into the power of transgression: Know what is above you – a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds are written in a book (Pirkei Avot 2.2).”

Being “G-d conscious” requires being in tune with spiritual values. It also requires us to train our minds to think about the consequences of our actions. We must choose to make good choices. 1 Corinthians 10:5 encourages that we must “take every thought captive to the obedience of Mashiach.”

We all make choices. Sometimes, we may not even make the best ones. However, I challenge each one of us to begin to train our minds to be “G-d conscious” in every way. So when the challenge arises to place our needs above the highest (and holiest) needs, we will be able to make the right decisions. May we, like our ancestor Jacob, receive the blessing to make choices of blessings and shalom, and in the end merit the righteous birthright of our Messiah Yeshua!

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Veterans Day

My paternal grandfather (pictured at left with my grandmother) served during WWII in the South Pacific in the Army’s searchlight and radar units. My maternal grandfather served in the Army in the Pacific during the Korean War.

My Dad also served our country as a Navy Seabee during the Vietnam War.

Monique’s maternal grandfather escaped Nazi Germany, joined the U.S. Army, and returned to Europe where he served in Army Intelligence during WWII, and helped liberate Dachau. Her paternal grandfather served as a midshipman in the Navy on the Battleship New Mexico.

From our families to yours, we want to thank all those who have served our country and wish you all a very Happy Veterans Day!

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Tonight, November 9-10, marks the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass.

It is called the “Night of Broken Glass” because on this night, in 1938, thousands of rioters stormed Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues causing enormous amounts of damage throughout Germany and Austria.

Just before midnight on November 9, the Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller sent a telegram to all police units informing them:

“In shortest order, actions against Jews and especially their synagogues will take place in all of Germany. These are not to be interfered with.”


Instead of arresting the perpetrators of these events, police began rounding up and arresting the victims – Jews all over German occupied territories. Fire companies stood by synagogues in flames with explicit instructions to let the buildings burn. They were to intervene only if a fire threatened adjacent “Aryan” properties.

In two days and nights, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned or damaged, over 7,500 Jewish businesses were looted and ransacked, and at least 91 Jews were killed. Rioters also vandalized Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, and cemeteries. The attackers were often neighbors.

Some 30,000 Jewish males between 16 and 60 were arrested, and deported to concentration camps. Kristallnacht marked the official beginning of the Holocaust.

77 years later we still remember and will never forget!

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Assuming the Worst

Parashat Chayyei Sarah

Last week’s Torah portion ended with the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. Then immediately following we read about the death of Sarah. Our Sages teach that there is a direct connection between these two events.

The Akeida is often read as concluding successfully. However, what is not often discussed is its immediate effect on Abraham and Isaac. Apparently, the event was so traumatic for both them (in each their own way) that following we read that Abraham returned from the mountain alone (Gen 22:19).

Upon seeing Abraham returning alone, we are taught that Sarah assumed the worst, and died. The Torah states that Sarah was already 127 years old, and the Sages suggest that the thought of losing Isaac was just too much for her. Abraham returned alone with his servants and found his wife dead and mourned for her (Gen 23:2b).

Of course this is speculation, but assuming for a moment it could have happened this way, why did Sarah die?

This question left our Sages scratching their heads. Did Sarah not trust G-d to bring Isaac back? Did she not trust Abraham? Targum Jonathan, an early Aramaic paraphrase and commentary on the Torah, even suggests that Satan told Sarah that Abraham actually slaughtered Isaac, and that she cried out in grief and fell down dead.

Either way, according to this perspective, she did not fully wait to hear any news from Abraham himself. She assumed the worse!

How often do we do the same thing? It does not matter how many miracles we have witnessed, how many blessings we have experienced, or the promises we have been told. When things begin to go sour we often assume the worst. Instead of trusting G-d we begin blaming Him before even waiting to find out any news.

We don’t exactly know why Sarah died. But we do know that worrying and thinking negatively do not help any situation. That is why we are encouraged to “be anxious for nothing” (Phil 4:6). And when we do find ourselves sinking in despair, we must take those thoughts captive (2 Cor 10:5) and focus on what we know to be true. For in Torah, and through the Living Torah, we have the ability to understand fully who we really are, what’s in store, and what G-d expects from us.

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A Strange Set of Priorities

Parashat Vayyera

Why does Abraham argue with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not over abandoning Hagar and Ishmael, or over killing his own son, Isaac?

In Parashat Vayyera, Abraham betrays a strange set of personal priorities. Still recovering from his recent circumcision, Abraham leaps at the chance to offer hospitality to strangers on their way to Sodom. While entertaining them, he learns that God plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. Abraham enters into a lengthy and highly stylized argument with God over these plans:

“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Genesis 18: 23–25)”

Abraham eventually bargains God down from fifty to ten, but ten righteous men are not found in Sodom or Gomorrah, and so the cities are destroyed. Later in the portion, God tells Abraham to follow Sarah’s desire to banish Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael from their community. The text says that Abraham was distressed over this decision, but there is no record of an argument with God on the matter. Abraham banishes Hagar, sending her off with only bread and water. Ishmael nearly dies of thirst in the wilderness as a result.

Finally, God tells Abraham to take his son, his favorite son, the one he loves . . . Isaac, and kill him. God gets no argument from Abraham. There is no talk of the rights of the innocent, no defense of the righteousness of Isaac. In fact, the text says that Abraham hastened to obey. He got up early the next morning and set off with his son, fully intending to offer him on Mount Moriah as a burnt offering.

In combination, these stories leave us with the impression that Abraham is far more concerned with the welfare of strangers than shalom bayit in his own home. Indeed, halfway through this portion, Abraham has made a second attempt to pimp out his wife Sarah to a king in exchange for material comforts (Genesis 20:3). And by the beginning of next week’s portion, his son Isaac is no longer speaking to him. When his wife drops dead from the distress of learning that her husband was planning to kill her only son, Abraham snaps out of his stupor and arranges a lavish burial for her.

Abraham seems eager to enter into an argument with God over the welfare of people he barely knows, but is all too willing to comply with commandments that would tear his family apart. He is left a widower, estranged from his beloved son, clinging to the promise that his descendants will outnumber the stars in the sky. This is not the behavior of a “family man,” at least not by 21st century standards. Yet he is remembered as righteous and is hailed as an example of unfaltering faith in God and God’s promises.

It is difficult to make sense of this paradox. It is easy to walk away from this portion scratching one’s head, asking “why, God, did you choose to build a nation from these people?” Perhaps that is exactly the point. Our Scriptures are littered with the tales of deeply flawed men and women who demonstrate their skewed priorities through their everyday choices. God does great things through them in spite of themselves. Let us remember that even our revered patriarchs could not hold their families together. “Lest we think too highly of ourselves” (Romans 12:3).

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Course Announcement: Genocide, Jews and Justice


Monique Brumbach will be teaching a special six-week Foundation Course for the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, titled: Genocide, Jews and Justice. 

The course will examine select human rights abuses in modern times, and explore our mandate to serve as a “Light to the Nations,” even in a fast-changing world. It will pose such questions as: Do Jewish people bear a special responsibility to combat genocide and mass atrocities? Where have Jewish people contributed to successful social movements in the past, and how should we act today?

MJTI LogoIt will be six weeks of bone-chilling readings, challenging discussions … all with the goal of helping students learn the concrete strategies and tactics that have made Jewish people such potent agents of change in the mass social movements of the last two centuries. Think abolition, civil rights, preventing genocide, and human trafficking.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a political echo chamber. We’ll look at global and local issues from a Jewish perspective first and foremost, and spend most of our time thinking about strategy, not soundbites.

You can view the syllabus HERE.

Monique is a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and a seasoned human rights lawyer who has lived and worked internationally. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where her husband – Rabbi Joshua Brumbach – leads Ahavat Zion Synagogue.

The course begins Sunday, October 25th, and will be offered both online and onsite at Ahavat Zion Synagogue in Beverly Hills, CA.

It’s a good deal, too. $150 to take the course online for credit (pass/fail) and $109 to audit. For those who take the course live onsite, it is only $99! The books come cheap and fast on Amazon, and are stocked in most public libraries. This is an adult education level course, and open to anyone.

To register or for additional information, contact the MJTI Registrar at admin@mjti.org.

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A Flood and a Tower

Parashat Noach

A Flood and a Tower. These are the two central narratives within this week’s parashah. Noach is rich with lessons for our day, connections to other biblical events, and full of historical allusions within the greater ancient Near East.

The most central narrative within the parashah is of course the account of the flood, of Noah and his family, and the salvation of all living creatures through the building of an ark (a wood vessel).

The Ark

The ark that Noach builds is called in Hebrew a Tevah (תבה). This word only appears in two places in the entire Torah. The only other time the word Tevah is used is in reference to the reed “basket” Moshe is placed in by his mother and hidden in the river, only to be later discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter.

This was intentional. The use of the word Tevah is meant to connect these two stories. So what are the connections between the two narratives? Both of these are mysterious “vessels.” They are literally boxes. When you look at the dimensions of the ark in the Torah, it is not a typical ship. It is a box. They are both covered with pitch. Both are also “divinely directed.” Meaning, neither of them are guided by human means. The ark has no oars, or any type of steering mechanism. The reed basket Moshe is placed in is also divinely directed, left to the current of the river.

Both figures emerge from their respective Tevah to become a type of redeeming figure – a savior of humanity. And both are recognized for their obedience and faith to HaShem. The Torah wants to make clear that Noach is a redeeming figure similar to Moshe. The use of these connections also ties the whole narrative (and all the intermediate narratives) together.

I have not even touched on the connection of the Biblical flood account to other flood accounts known throughout the world, let alone the Ancient Near Eastern flood account of Utnapishtim.

The Tower of Bavel

The other narrative central to this week’s parashah is the Tower of Bavel. According to the Torah, a great “tower” was built in the plain of Shinar, intended to reach up into the heavens. G-d destroyed the tower and scattered the people across the earth, and confused their languages because of their intentions.

Ziggur9The reference to Shinar is believed by scholars to be ancient Sumer (one of the earliest great civilizations), and more broadly to Mesopotamia as a whole. Interestingly, the tower is called Bavel, most likely a reference to the Mesopotamian city with the same name – Bavel (Babylon).

According to the Biblical account, the purpose for building the Tower was to reach the heavens so they could make a name for themselves (Gen. 11:4). Scholars have long connected this story with the great Mesopotamian temples, known as Ziggurats – which were massive stepped pyramid structures. Ziggurats were places where priests offered prayers, offerings, and sacrifices to the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods.

Another interesting possible connection is that the great ziggurat in Babylon was called “E-sag-ila,” meaning, “the head that reaches the gods,” the same concept behind the biblical account. Maybe this is further insight into the reason G-d destroyed the Tower of Bavel???

So, what are we to make of all this?

The Scriptures contain a wealth of historical allusions and references. It is fascinating just how many there really are when you are familiar with ancient Near Eastern civilizations. But these narratives were included for particular reasons – theological reasons. They were meant to demonstrate to their ancient listeners (our ancestors) that the G-d of Israel was in fact the G-d of the flood account, which was known throughout the world. And the narrative of the Tower of Bavel is meant to demonstrate that the G-d of Israel is greater then the pantheon of Mesopotamian gods, and was meant to explain the reason for various people and languages spread throughout the world.

May we, like Noach, learn to hear from HaShem. May we also be bold enough, like Noach, to act on whatever G-d asks of us. HaShem may not ask us all to build an ark, but sometimes G-d asks us to do tasks that are often just as difficult in faith and action. The lesson of this parashah is that difficult faith is rewarded, and that the same all powerful G-d is also active in the world around us today to help us through life’s most difficult trials.

This article also appears on the UMJC website at http://www.umjc.org/a-flood-and-a-tower/

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