"Dreams and angels," said Richard. "That's what it's all about, and there are some major Jewish concepts right there."
"No way," retorted Simon."It's all about names and their meanings. And you know what else? It is about gratitude. There's a basic Jewish concept for you!"
Leon sat slyly silent for a moment before chipping in his two cents. "Sorry. You're both wrong. I'll tell you what I discovered after you're both finished."
You may remember, dear reader, that for several weeks now, we have been sharing in the discussions of a small class I led many years ago on the topic of basic Jewish concepts found in the book of Genesis. This week, the students, Richard, Simon, and Leon, had been assigned the Torah portion of Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3, and were asked to identify some of the basic Jewish concepts to be found therein.
Richard, always passionate and articulate, felt that it was a no-brainer. "The parsha begins with Jacob's dream, in which he sees angels. Then in Chapter 31, Verse 11, an angel appears to him again in a dream and encourages him to 'get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy birthplace.' And in the next-to-last verse in the entire parsha, Jacob yet again encounters angels."
The discussion progressed with a lot of disclosure of dreams of each of the students and the astonishing extent to which their dreams had come true. That dreams are of import, the class concluded, would seem to be a basic concept of Judaism. I could not deny that but pointed out the cautionary remarks of the Talmud which advises us to recognize that "every dream contains some nonsense."
The role played by angels in Judaism could easily have been discussed for many hours, but Simon, slowly overcoming his usual shyness, interrupted and asserted himself: "I think it is far more important to pay attention to the many births which are described in this week's portion, and especially to the names that are given to the children. In almost every instance the name given to the child reflects gratitude to God for the birth of the child. Thus, Reuben is called Reuben because of 'the Lord hath looked upon my suffering (ra'ah b'anyi).' And so forth.
"A sense of gratitude toward God for the blessing of each child is an everlasting model for all parents. And when the kid grows up and is told the spiritual significance of his name, that kid is going to be impacted."
Simon's use of the phrase "sense of gratitude" gave me the opportunity I was looking for to bring the concept of gratitude to the fore. I have long felt that hakarat hatov, gratitude, is the very core of the Jewish faith. In support of Simon's thesis, I pointed out that Leah named her fourth son Judah, and that name was based upon the words "this time, I will thank the Lord." Judah's very name means gratitude, and what is really significant is that the words Jew and Judaism derive from that name. Gratitude and thankfulness are intrinsic to the words by which we are identified.
The discussion continued. It became more and more difficult for me to insert my thoughts into the fray. Richard argued the case for dreams and angels and their connection to our religion, and Simon held his ground, enthralled by the sense of awe and connectedness to God that accompanied the birth of each of the tribes.
Leon participated too, but with uncharacteristic reserve. It was clear that he was biding his time and waiting for the discussion to subside before introducing his insight.
He finally could contain himself no longer: "Let me tell you what I discovered," he exclaimed.
"Discovery" was typical of Leon. He was a very careful reader of the text, had a memory like a steel trap, and was very sensitive to the subtleties of language.
The others challenged him. "Okay, genius," said Richard. "Let's see what new continent Columbus discovered!"
"It is not a continent, just one Hebrew word," he replied. And then he continued, "Did you ever notice that in all the stories we have been reading so far, we have never yet encountered anger? Neither Abraham nor Isaac ever got angry. I was beginning to think that our Patriarchs were all... Angels! Never to become angry! They certainly had enough people and events in their lives to justify more than one expression of anger.
"But finally, in this week's Torah portion, we find someone who expressed anger, and it was none other than the "quiet man, dwelling in tents." (Genesis 25:27 in the translation of Rabbi J. H. Hertz). "Jacob finally had it with his father-in-law. Perhaps it was just the fact that he was a father-in-law, but more likely, it was the fact that Jacob had become impatient with Laban, whose duplicity and maltreatment had run its course.
"Take a look at Chapter 31, Verse 36: 'Now Jacob became angry and took up his grievance with Laban...' Then Jacob launches into a seven-sentence tirade against his father-in-law. Wow! I never thought that I would meet an angry Patriarch, especially not Jacob."
I must admit that I was very impressed with Leon's "discovery," and must have showed it, because the class looked from me to Leon with envy. Leon's insight is an important one in its own right, but I found myself sharing with the class that a great and unique sage had made the same observation more than 150 years ago and put that discovery into a special perspective.
That sage was Menachem Mendel, the Rebbe of Kotzk. He too recognized that Jacob was the first, and only, one of the Patriarchs to express anger. He believed that it was especially Jacob who showed anger; for the prophet Micah foretold, "Thou will grant truth to Jacob..." (Micah 7:20). Jacob wholly valued truth, and the Kotzker asserted that when someone is possessed by the need for truth he is an inevitably disappointed, and consequently anger is unavoidable.
Many basic Jewish concepts rose to the surface that evening: Angels and dreams, birth names and gratitude, truth and anger. I was becoming convinced that my choice of Genesis as a text for teaching the basic concepts of Judaism was more than justified.