Project Genesis


Question: When Hagar and Ishmael are kicked out, it says Sarah saw Ishmael doing something, and uses the verb ‘zadi, chet, kuf’, the same used for idolatry at the golden calf incident, murder in II Samuel and adultery when Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph… it’s also the verb for laughter with Isaacs name comes from… how can it be used so liberally? The Torah also states that Isaac was named for Sarah’s laughter, almost immediately before and after the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, which is usually a red flag – right? The use of a word 3 times in a row?

Answer: Hi! I’ve become quite fascinated by your question. I agree with you completely – there clearly is a very important point being made by the repetition of this verb (tzachaq – let’s translate it roughly as “laughter”). There’s a lot to think about here, and I’ll just tell you some of what occurs to me.

The idea of laughter is not a simple one. I know that a number of learned tomes, including one by Freud, have been written to try to explain it. I guess, though, that laughter generally is a response to something incongruous, something that doesn’t fit the pattern we expect. 90-year-old women just don’t bear and nurse children! Here G-d is the one causing the “laughable” situation by doing something out of the realm of the normal rules. Here, laughter is beautiful – it’s a recognition of wonder.

At other times it is people who create the laughter, by ignoring the bounds of the real world. We would perhaps call that “scoffing”. That’s what a scoff-law does, when he shows contempt for the norms of society, treating terrible crimes (murder, idol worship, adultery) as nothing serious. I think that’s what Ishmael was doing. When everyone else was laughing in wonder at the great miracle that G-d had done, Ishmael, his feelings hurt and feeling pushed aside, was trying to mock it and dismiss it as not a big deal. Unfortunately, by doing that he marked himself as unable to continue as a part of the world Sarah and Abraham were building.

I don’t think the word “tzachaq” itself carries a wide variety of meanings. Its very specific meaning does have many different uses, though, some good and some bad. Everything is like that; the world is complex, and things can be used or abused.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

The Concept of Angels

Filed under: G-d and Torah

Question: Could you please help me to find out about the meaning of angels?

Answer: Hi, Thanks for asking a fantastic question. The concept of angels in Judaism is very different than in other religions. I always start out by asking a person to describe to me what they think an angel looks like. The typical answer is something to do with a halo, white body, wings, and they are usually women or children. That is nothing like an angel according to Jewish tradition.

One example of angels in the Torah is with Abraham. There were three men who came to visit Abraham three days after his self inflicted ritual circumcision. His house was known to be open to strangers and guests, but it wasn’t the best time for company. Abraham, however, had Sara prepare a meal for them, washed their feet, and treated them like kings. These people, according to some of our commentators, were angels of G-d.

In the physical world, G-d can send angels as messengers, but they have a specific mission and cannot deviate from it. They have no free will. Angels are static and are controlled by G-d. From a spiritual perspective, angels, or Melachim in Hebrew, are white spiritual beings with one bottom (they have no legs) and exist for G-d to give them spiritual tasks. The Torah says in Genesis, “Let us make man.” We understand that to mean that G-d consulted with the spiritual powers and created the world. The angelic world is very complex.

If you are interested in further reading on the subject I highly suggest you get a book entitled, “The Way of G-d,” by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato.

Thanks, Rabbi Litt


Understanding the Sacrifice of Isaac

Question: Can you direct me to any texts debating whether Abraham failed G-d’s test when he was willing to proceed with the sacrifice of Isaac?

Answer: You will not find any real source material stating that Abraham failed the test because he was willing to sacrifice his son because it was not a mistake for him to go through with it. This is a very hard thing for us, emotional beings, to understand or internalize.

The Zohar, our mystical writings, tell us that it would have been impossible for Abraham to force Isaac to go to the alter. In other words, Isaac willfully went, knowing what his fate was. How does the Zohar know this? Well, Abraham was 137 and Isaac was 37. Can you imagine a 137 man trying to force a strong 37 year old to do anything? The Zohar teaches us that these were not normal people. Abraham was a man of spiritual steal; a Superman, if you wish. He transmitted his knowledge to his son, Isaac, and Isaac, too, had this ability and perspective. Therefore, it was not the wrong decision to bring his son for sacrifice. This was the final, and most difficult, test of ten that Abraham had to go through in his life.

To make the case stronger, Isaac asked to be tied up. Why would he do this? He did it because he was afraid that in the last second he might get scared and back out. He did not want the sacrifice to be tainted like that, so he asked his father to tie him up tightly.

Understand this: G-d never wanted Abraham to kill his son. He wanted Abraham to have enough trust in G-d that he would be willing to give up the most valuable thing in his life for the greater good of humanity. As Humans, we think that we know what is best for humanity. How arrogant… If there is a G-d, who is beyond time and space, then only He, the Creator of the World, can know what is best. Sometimes what is best for the world conflicts with our sense of right and wrong. That is why we are not G-d. I hope that this helps. Feel free to write back if you have any follow up questions.

Be Well,
Rabbi Litt

Do Angels Talk to Women?

Question: My son would like to know why in the Torah Portion of Vayera (Genesis 18) when the guests, who the Commentaries say were really angels, bring news to Sarah that she would have a child, why was the guest facing Abraham and not Sarah? I thought perhaps it was an issue of modesty. Do you know why it was told to Abraham and not to Sarah directly?

Answer: Hello, thanks for the interesting question. It seems to me that the simplest answer is that the guests, were talking to Abraham and not to Sarah. As the verse says, she was in the tent, preparing the food; Abraham was outside with the guests, serving it. I guess you could call that a modesty issue, or just their normal division of labor.

Certainly angels sometimes speak to women as well as men; there are a number of such cases in the Bible, such as Hagar’s experience with the angel (Genesis 16:7-12).

All the Best,
Michoel Reach

Is Circumcision Child Mutilation?

Filed under: Circumcision

Question: Do you have any explanation as to why God required males to have their foreskins cut off at 8 days old (Gen 17:12) as a sign of the covenant? I have tried to rationalize this in my own mind but cannot get away from the fact that this is child mutilation which caused agony to the infant in an intimate area. Please help me to understand the reasoning behind this. Many Thanks in advance

Answer: Your question is very legitimate, and I would like to start by addressing the bottom line answer which is:

We are finite human beings and we can not understand G-d’s thoughts. With that said we are open to conjecture.

First off, I am a practicing Mohel (ritual circumcision practitioner) and can vouch that the circumcision performed by a “Mohel” doesn’t cause much more agony than vaccinations that the baby receives in the hospital. (While you might counter that vaccinations are vital for the physical health of the child, so too a circumcision is vital for the spiritual health of a Jewish child).

If you haven’t you should make a point of witnessing a Jewish circumcision ceremony and you will see a happy occasion. It is celebrated. The procedure takes less than 30 seconds by an experienced “Mohel”. The baby quiets down shortly afterwards. In my personal experience as a parent of 4 children, I’ve seen nurses trying to draw blood from the heel of the baby pricking them repeatedly for 20+ min all the while holding down the baby screaming bloody murder.

Regarding your claim to “CHILD MUTILATION” this is far from the truth, unless you consider piercing ears “CHILD MUTILATION”.

There are no shortage of medical research studies that show that circumcised males have less risk of contracting HIV, infections due to poor hygiene (unclean foreskin), etc.

Complications as a result of a circumcision are rare. And extremely rare when performed by a “Mohel.” 

For religious believers in the Old Testament (Jews and Christians), we believe in one G-d that created the world. This G-d is omnipotent and all-knowing. Judaism not only encourages questioning “why?” it thrives on it. YET, we ultimately believe that we are engaging in a spiritual academic debate since ultimately if G-d commanded it, then it by definition is ultimate goodness whether we understand it or not. This goes for death, tragedy and utter devastation. We mourn, we cry, we agonize, but one who has faith in G-d knows that we don’t know why, but G-d does and even though it is beyond our comprehension it must be for the good.

Trying to be definitive about G-d’s thoughts is like trying to see the moon with a microscope. It is so magnificent and our scope is so minuscule. I hope this will help you start on your trek to appreciating that G-d’s ultimate will is beyond our grasp.

All the Best, Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

Is the World Holy?

Filed under: Circumcision

Question: Did G-d create a holy world and does He want us to keep it holy or make it a holy place by our deeds?

Answer: Thanks for the great question. When Hashem created the world he created it with the intention in mind that His creations were perfect in that they were not yet spiritually tarnished. It was up to us to take the potential (good and bad) and create our own realities.

Man lowered himself in the Garden of Eden and caused us to have to be punished on this earth for our deeds through death. We control our own spiritual destiny. That is a major concept in Jewish thought called bechira, or free will. God is perfect in every way, and we have the potential to reach spiritual unity with Our Creator. The problem is that as humans, we have desires that sometimes override the inclination to do good. As a result we do not live up to our potential.

In short, God created a place for us to take care of and perfect in a spiritual way. That comes down to the deepest, most inner thoughts and intentions of a person’s being. He did create a “holy” place, but we can make the holy impure or that which is currently disgraceful into something holy.

This is a very deep and difficult concept to portray in a short correspondence.

Be Well,
Rabbi Litt (more…)

Marriage of Abraham and Hagar

Question: When Sarah gave Hagar to Abram in order to fulfill what she thought was the prophecy that she would have a child, was he committing adultery by taking Hagar or just custom?

Answer: Abraham was not committing adultery. Remember, the Torah was not given yet. There was no obligation to follow the commandments yet at all. It happened to be that Abraham was a man of truth, so he followed the Torah, which he knew inherently.

Also, the Torah does not prohibit having more than one wife. It is Rabbinically prohibited, but not forbidden from the Torah. Today, we are not allowed to have more than one wife. That did not apply to Abraham.

All the Best, Rabbi Azriel Shreiber 

“Brothers” and “Sisters”

Question: Does the Bible ever use the word “brother” or “sister” for more distant relatives?

Answer: Nieces and nephews were definitely sometimes called brothers and sisters. For example, Lot was Abraham’s nephew and Sarah was his niece (based on identifying Yiscah with Sarai and her father Haran with Abraham’s brother Haran in Gen.11:29), but Abraham refers to Lot as his brother (Gen.13:8,14:14), and told various kings that Sarah was his sister (Gen.Chs.12 and 20), Isaac and Rebekah were cousins once removed (Rebekah’s father Besuel was the son of Abraham’s brother Nachor, so he was Isaac’s first cousin; see Gen.22:23), so when Isaac tells the Philistines that Rebekah is his sister (Gen.26:7), he is referring to his cousin as his “sister”.

All the Best, Rabbi Azriel Schreiber 

Abraham Taking Lot with Him

Question: When Abraham left his father’s house, was he allowed to take his nephew Lot with him?

Answer: Abraham was told in Gen.12:1 to leave his land, his MOLEDES, and his father’s house. It’s possible to translate MOLEDES (from the root YLD, meaning “born”) as “family” or “kindred”; but the commentators translate it as “birthplace”, which is what it clearly means in many other verses (e.g.,11:28). Thus Abraham was told to leave his father’s house, but not to leave all his relatives behind; nothing was said about whom he could or couldn’t take with him. In fact, he didn’t take his father, his brother Nachor, or his sister-in-law Milcah; they all stayed behind in Charan, where his father died 60 years later. Abraham’s nephew Lot went with him voluntarily (12:4).

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