Author Archives: Rabbi Gerry Serotta

Rabbi Gerry Serotta

About Rabbi Gerry Serotta

Rabbi Gerry Serotta has served since 1982 as Campus Rabbi at George Washington University, and also serves as Associate Rabbi, Temple Shalom of Chevy Chase, MD.

Affirming And Spreading Our Core Values

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Like the ancient Israelites taking a deep breath on the last day of the life of Moses, before the upcoming transitions in leadership, we read Parashat Vayelekh every year during a time around the High Holy Days when we seek new meaning and direction in our own lives.

This portion, whose name comes from the Hebrew root for movement, is frequently read together with another portion, Nitzavim, which means standing firmly in place. This juxtaposition implies that, ironically, we move and grow most successfully when we are like trees, firmly planted in a soil rich with experience and tradition, but nurtured alongside living and moving streams.

Parashat Vayelekh contains the last two of the traditional counting of 613 commandments, both of which can connect with the spiritual work we need to do in this transitional period, both for the individual and the community.

In the Torah narrative, Moses completes the writing of the Torah and hands it over to the kohanim, the priests, and the elders. He instructs them to read it to the people at regular intervals, not to keep it to themselves as a private esoteric document. He also prepares and writes down his final “song,” a moralistic epic poem to be read and remembered regularly. It will serve as a witness to the fallibility of the people about to enter into possession of a holy land.

From these texts, the Rabbis extract the following mitzvot, or commandments: (1) the entire people and those who identify with them must be gathered every seven years to hear some specific teachings publicly; and (2) every individual must write down this spiritual legacy.

This second commandment was originally understood to mean that everyone is required to make his or her own copy of the Torah. As Jewish law developed, this was modified to include support for the writing of any sacred literature, whether taken from the “written” Torah or its oral (rabbinic) interpretation.

A less literal expression of this commandment is the creation of an ethical will, a statement of one’s own interpretation of the spiritual lessons we derive from our tradition and wish to pass on to future generations. This tradition of writing an ethical will has a venerable pedigree in Jewish history, extending from ancient times to today, through which Jews act upon the felt obligation to summarize and pass on the lessons of our lives.

The penultimate command of the Torah is referred to as hakhel, meaning “gather” or “assemble” the people. This sabbatical retreat has some very unusual features. The gathering occurs on the harvest festival, Sukkot, following the year in which there has been no harvest–the sabbatical or shmitah year, in which the land has been given its rest.

All of the people are expected to assemble: men and women, children and elders–and not only the Jewish people, but also the local non-Jewish residents are invited to participate. In fact, Sukkot, on which the gathering takes place, was in Temple times the most universal of the national holidays, when sacrifices were offered on behalf of all the nations of the world.

The traditional prophetic reading, or haftarah, which the Rabbis connected to Parashat Vayelekh is taken from Isaiah (55:6-56:8). It contains a précis of universal morality and a strong emphasis on the interconnection of matters of spirit and justice. The prophet declares: “Seek the Eternal while God can be found; observe what is right and do what is just. Let not the foreigner who has attached himself to the Eternal say, ‘The Eternal will keep me apart from God’s people’…for My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Why is this particular gathering designated to be so inclusive, and what are the texts the gathered are supposed to learn? The three segments read are all from Deuteronomy: (1) the recapitulation of Exodus history through the giving of Ten Commandments, and the passages contained in the Sh’ma and V’ahavta prayers (1:1-6:9) (2) the section which describes the relationship of moral human behavior to the ecology of the land (11:13-21); and (3) a potpourri of laws including the intrepid pursuit of justice (tzedek, tzedek tirdof), concluding with the blessings and curses which are the consequences of moral action or inaction (14:22-28:69).

Interestingly, these particular sections parallel the path prescribed in the Talmud for a person who wishes to join the Jewish people: (a) recognize the traumas of the Jewish past; (b) learn some of the laws of justice seeking, particularly the laws pertaining to the responsibility we have toward the poor and vulnerable; and (c) recognize the consequences of moral failure for the earth and its inhabitants.

But even more striking is the fact that together, these very last commandments in the Torah demand that the entire Jewish people periodically re-engage ourselves with our tradition’s core values, and then share our legacy with neighbors–according to Isaiah, with all the nations.

Exile and Survival: Jacob’s Legacy

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In Parshat Vayishlah, Jacob is transformed from successful itinerant businessman to spiritual ancestor of the people of Israel. Events include a solitary nocturnal struggle with the legacy of Jacob’s past, personified variously as God, God’s emissary, or a projected human form. This dramatic episode grabs our attention because it provides the powerful name both Jacob and we have borne throughout history — Israel, the God wrestler.

Jacob and Esau’s Reconciliation

This drama, so replete with images of symbolic wounds and archetypes of shadow sides, completes a process that enables Jacob to approach his brother Esau in a fashion that leads to reconciliation. Esau embraces his brother. This surprise conclusion is hardly anticipated by the text, which makes clear at every possible turn that Esau’s retinue of 400 men was clearly understood by Jacob and his representatives (who failed in their mission to placate Esau’s enmity) to be a military show of force.

Was it Jacob’s limping that evoked his brother’s sympathy? Was it his directness and simple courage in moving forward alone, ahead of his own troops, contrasted with his hightailing it out of town decades earlier — his stolen birthright in tow?

Jacob’s Spiritual Growth

The answers may be inferred from three subtle hints of language in the opening verses of chapter 32 of Genesis, which include the beginning of our parshah. They indicate that the process of spiritual growth began for Jacob in his exile experience.

Jacob is the first of our ancestors with true, lengthy, exile experience, since Isaac never left the land and Abraham’s excursions were clearly temporary. That he understood the significance of his experience can be inferred from the very last word of last week’s parshah: “machanaim” (Genesis 32:3) – i.e. “Two Camps,” Jacob’s name for the place on his journey home where he first encountered God’s messengers/angels. The commentator Rashi describes the two “camps” as the differing spiritual presences (angels) to be experienced in the galut (diaspora) and in the Land of Israel. Shortly we will see the lesson Jacob learns from this prior experience.

The first hint of a process that we might see as preparing for reconciliation with Esau is contained in his instructions to his servants carrying his peace offerings. Before describing his material success and offering gifts, he requested that they tell Esau,”I was a ger (sojourner, resident alien) with Laban” (Genesis 32:5, “garti im Lavan”) these many years. Rather than stress his material and familial success, his summation of his experience was, “I now know what it is like to be dispossessed of power and control.”

Jacob’s Shift in Character

Though it appears from the text that this message was never delivered, perhaps the experience was so powerful that it conditioned Jacob’s gait and appearance so clearly that Esau responded automatically to the vulnerability visible in his usurping younger brother.

When the servants returned without success and warned Jacob of Esau’s approach with 400 men, Jacob’s emotional response and then his actions give two more hints of his progress and development. We learn that he was both afraid and distressed (32:8) — afraid, that he might be killed, but also distressed that he would be involved in killing others, according to several commentators.

Just like the prospective soldier in Deuteronomy (20:8), who is both fearful and fainthearted for the same reasons, Jacob’s moral universe has shifted from the heel-grabbing, birthright-snatching materialist to one who would attempt to resolve conflict non-violently as a matter of first priority.

The Benefits of Two Camps

Finally we see an interesting, perhaps strategic decision to divide his entire people into two camps (32:8). One midrash views this as prudent, common sense (derech eretz). We shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. If Esau has aggressive plans on Jacob’s people, then at least one camp will escape and serve as a refuge.

The analogy to the experience of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora was not lost on future commentators. Surprisingly, there were Rabbis in the Talmudic period who also detected a positive rationale for the galut (exile) beyond its survival benefit. R. Elazar and R. Yochanon commended the galut for its result in adding proselytes to the Jewish people (Tractate Pesahim 87b).

Midrash on “Song of Songs” (1:4) compares the Jewish people to a flask of perfume, which emits its scent when shaken, as in the experience of Abraham who was instructed to wander about in the world so that his name would become great in God’s world.

Spiritual Potential in Exile

Recalling his experience at Machanaim, Jacob’s behavior seems to reflect a notion that there is spiritual potential in the galut. Certainly his experiences in galut were powerful influences on the man who then makes reconciliation with his brother.

Sometimes in Jewish history, galut experience can be the spiritual cutting edge for the descendants of Jacob/Israel, when spiritual deadness pervades the land of Israel (or vice-versa.) In addition, a careful study of the metaphor of galut in rabbinic literature indicates that the potential exists for the experience of galut/exile even within the borders of Eretz Yisrael.

Jacob was prepared for his epiphanous experience and for his reconciliation with Esau by learning the unique vantage point provided by our Jewish history of exile and return, by his discovery of the limits of violence to solve conflict, and by his identification with vulnerable, disenfranchised gerim (strangers). These lessons still have resonance for Jews the world over.