Project Genesis


The Importance of the First Born

Question: What is the importance of the first born?

Answer:  The first born have been important since earliest times; Abel sacrificed the first born of his flock (Gen.4:4), G-d smote the Egyptian first born (Ex.11:4ff), and we are commanded to sanctify the first born of both people and animals (Ex.13:1). But most of the key Biblical figures were younger sons: Isaac, who was Ishmael’s younger brother; Jacob, who was Esau’s younger (twin) brother; Joseph, who was Jacob’s second youngest son; and Ephrayim, who was Menasheh’s younger brother (Gen.:48). Apparently, in spite of the fact that the first born were traditionally important, and they still require redemption and inherit a double portion (Deut. 21:17), they often don’t become the leaders.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schreiber 

Age of Isaac and Rebecca

Question: How old were Isaac and Rebekah when Jacob and Esau were born – 63 and 23 years?

Answer: The verse (Gen. 25:26) explicitly records Isaac’s age at the birth of his two sons to be 60 years old. In Gen.25:20 we learn that he married Rebecca at age 40. Therefore, if, as much of the rabbinic chronology indicates, she was 3 at the time of marriage she would have given birth, as you suggested, at age 23. However, there are opinions that she was older (for example Ibn Ezra) at the time of her marriage to Isaac.

All the best,
R’ Daniel Fleksher

How Could Jacob Steal the Blessings?

Question: What is the rational for the means justifying the ends with regard to Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing from their father Isaac. Why does the conspiracy between Jacob and Rebekah toward Isaac, and Esau, succeed?

Answer: Your question looks simple, but it is in reality quite complex, and could easily consume the pages of a large book. I’m not going to write that much but I’ll give you a few basics. G-d’s plan for the world was that Esau support Yaacov (Jacob) so that Yaacov could be free to study and undertake G-d’s priestly duties. To do this Esau and Yaacov would each receive the appropriate blessing. These are serious blessings through which necessary G-dly assistance would be received.Esau however was not going to adhere to his end of the bargain. Yaacov would not be able to survive over the long run without the assistance of Esau, UNLESS he had that Bracha (blessing). The fact of the matter is that Esau offered to sell the Bracha for a cheap price, because Esau did not see spiritual value, and Yaacov’s purchase makes the idea of theft merely philosophical discussion material. When Yaacov switched places with Esau it was to make sure Esau did not prevent him from receiving the Bracha he had already purchased.

In all of this G-d was orchestrating the sequence of events. Rivka (Rebecca) and Yaacov both had high prophetic abilities and understood Esau. Yitzchak (Isaac) was also a Navi (prophet) but was blinded by his son’s demeanor, as Esau’s greatest attribute was the honor in which he held his parents. In the world outside that honor however, he was a different person. Rivka and Yaacov knew this; Yitzchak did not, or would not accept it.

It was therefore a conspiracy of right over evil. Nevertheless, G-d runs the world on the basis of “Middah Knegged Middah,” more commonly known as, “what goes around comes around.” Since Yaacov committed this conspiracy, other conspiracies would be committed against him later on

And there you have an introduction,
Eliahu Levenson

Reading the Torah With Your Own Assumptions

Question:  The story of how Hagar was sent out is terrible. With only one thing of water, in the desert, with a child? If that happened today, it would be considered abusive, right? Also, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. That would, today, have Abraham in jail for attempted murder. I do believe people wrote the bible in a way to justify whatever they did by saying “God told me to”. People still do that today and they end up in jail. [Note: This has been edited and other questions are referenced in the response]

Answer: All of these involve an assumption that I’m having a lot of trouble dealing with. Pardon me for saying so, but you seem to be reading a different book. In the Torah, and the Bible, G-d is absolutely the main character. (If there is a main supporting role, it is the nation of Israel.) The whole point of the entire Bible is the continual attempt by G-d to bring his nation close to him. And yet – you seem to be trying to understand the Bible without any G-d in it, skipping over the parts that mention him! Now, I can see how someone might want to do that, but I don’t expect you’re going to get much sense from it. Nor is it fair of you to ask me to try to help you read it that way.

Take the example of Hagar. Sent out into the desert, with only one thing of water… Let me put a person in place of G-d. “Abraham described his problem to his uncle Fred. Fred said, ‘I understand. Don’t worry. You take care of the rest of your family; I’ll take care of Hagar and her son. Send them to me; they’ll be fine.’ And so it was” (Genesis 21(12-21)). Doesn’t sound so bad. But really – how do you expect the story to make any sense if you take G-d out and replace him with nobody at all? The same with the other 2 questions. Of course someone today would go to jail for attempted murder. That’s because he would be attempting murder. Abraham, on the other hand, was attempting to do G-d’s command, impossible as he found it to justify.

I know that you’ll tell me that the crazy guy today would also say that G-d sent him. But that is what makes him crazy – G-d didn’t. If we want to be intellectually honest, we have to work with our story using its givens. The assumption made in the story is that Abraham was given a moral dilemma by G-d himself. Deny that assumption and there is surely no point to reading the story. Now, what should Abraham have done? “We are supposed to wrestle with God, right? Didn’t some guy in the bible wrestle with God and it was counted as righteous?” No, not really. You must be referring to the story of Jacob wrestling with the “man” (Genesis 32(25-31)). Our sages understand him to be an angel, the angel of Esau, the negative side of humanity’s nature. In any event, he is never thought of as G-d. G-d is not physical, he doesn’t wrestle. Jacob is called Israel as a result: The one who wrestles with the mighty. “El” in this context doesn’t mean G-d.

This last question also goes together with another one.
“The stories of how to go to war- to kill the men,women,children, babies…that’s insane.

We come back to our assumptions. I value human life very highly, infinitely highly. We are the most precious thing in this world. G-d values us infinitely too. But that doesn’t mean that our lives are the only thing that counts. If there’s any message to learn from the Bible, it is that we are not here just to run around and have a good time. We are here to form a relationship with G-d. He has created us for that reason. Our lives are in his hands. He creates us, and he takes our lives away when he is ready. Again, whether you believe this is your personal decision – but you cannot dispute that this is a central assumption of the Torah. I think that once again you are, in effect, trying to read the Bible without G-d in it. So you cannot be fair and compare the rules for people operating on their own, to people working under G-d’s direct instructions. If someone decides to kill his son, he is a murderer (even if he claims that G-d said to). If G-d actually commands him to do so, the person is no more than a messenger; G-d could use a virus or a train wreck just the same. His son’s life belongs to G-d, as does his own. If a nation decides to go to war and kill their neighbor, that might indeed be murder (even if they invoke G-d’s name over their actions). But if G-d actually decides that the destiny of that nation, and the ultimate destiny of the world, requires their neighbor’s removal, that is His right. He created them. And there is such a thing as reality and fiction.

Last little bit: “If you take the women you can sleep with them (although in 30 days you have to marry them).” Pardon, but I think this one is just a mistake. Take a look in Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah (M’lachim chapter 8). He understands the section as describing the laws of how a soldier can marry a non-Jewish wife, and how she must voluntarily choose to become Jewish for it to be allowed. Normally we don’t allow conversions in order to marry. Here is an exception.

All the Best,
Michoel Reach

Ghosts and Psychopomps

Filed under: Miscellaneous

Question: I was reading about psychopomps, or ones that guide souls to heaven, and read that the only ones were Abraham, Sariel, Gabriel, Lailah, and either Elijah or Sandolphon. Three questions arose: 1)why are there ghosts if there are psychopomps (I know you can’t know for sure, I’d just like a rabbi’s/scholar’s serious opinion). 2)if there are billions of people, why are there so few psychopomps, and, together with the second, do you think some less religious Jews might be chosen by G-d to become psychopomps?

Answer: Thank you for your excellent question.

Jewish tradition attributes different roles to different angels, including in the realm of Psychopompistry. Among the persons you mentioned, the only one who is not an angel is Abraham.

Abraham’s Psychopomp role is to prevent any Jew from going to Gehinnom (temporary Hell). He stands at the gate of Gehinnom and keeps out any Jew who was properly circumcised and did not have relations with someone from another religion.

People rarely become angels. Two exceptions were Enoch, who became Metatron and Elijah who became Sandalphon. However, one Kabbalist Rabbi explained to me that we find reference to Metatron before the “taking” of Enoch to heaven. Thus, he said, Metatron is a type of Angel, which the human being Enoch transformed into when God took him to heaven. So, too, with Elijah into Sandalphon, who is the partner of Metatron.

Sandalphon is mentioned in the Sukkos Machzor as the angel who takes our prayer to Heaven. I have not found reference to his being a Psychopomp, but that doesn’t mean he is not.

Lailah is sort of a Psychopomp in reverse. This angel, whose name means “Night” is in charge of bringing souls to earth to be born.

I am not familiar with the roles of Sariel and Gabriel as Psychopomps. Gabriel’s name means “Strong one of God”. Sariel means “Prince of God”.

In any event, these angels are generally not recognized as individual beings, but rather a type or role that angels can fill. Thus there can be many angelic psychopomps, to accommodate people who die.

Another psychopomp mentioned in the Talmud is the Angel of Death, who is the same as the Satan and the Evil Urge, according to the Talmud. This can be explained that when the Evil Urge (Yetzer Hara) tempts one to sin, then the Satan (Accuser) brings the complaint to heaven. If the punishment deemed is death, then the Angel of Death (Malach HaMaves) carries this out. The Angel of Death is described in the Talmud as having many eyes, and having a fiery glow.

The reason there are still ghosts despite there being angels to bring us to Heaven (called Psychopomps in Greek), is because not all souls are worthy to go to Heaven, or even to Gehinnom on the way to Heaven. These souls may be so connected to the desires of this world, that they simply do not want to leave, so they stay here as ghosts. Sometimes (very, very rarely) these ghosts may possess a living person. This is called a dybbuk. This is a marked difference between the view of Judaism and other religions as far as possession and exorcism. Other religions speak of demonic possession. According to Judaism, demons do not have much interest in possessing a living person by entering into them and taking over their body. Instead they may feed off of people, but not possess them. This is because the lifestyle of human beings is much different in many ways than that of demons, thus they do not choose to possess people usually. On the other hand, disembodied human souls, or ghosts, desire strongly to relive the life of being in a human body, so are more interested in possessing living people. Thus the reason there are ghosts is because some people just don’t want to experience spiritual bliss, because they are so attached to earthly life, so they simply stay here and wander around. They often recognize the folly of their ways then, but it is too late, and they need to have a Tikkun (correction) made for them by someone who is still alive to attain redemption. This is also true for souls that may have been reincarnated into animals, plants, or inanimate object. A Tikkun can also be made for souls already in Heaven, as they are judged on a higher level each year so they can advance in their heavenly growth (and since they no longer have free will, we on earth can make the Tikkun for them). We can make a Tikkun for departed souls by doing Mitzvos (thus being a sort of living Psychopomp). The Kabbalists teach that when one recites the blessing over blooming fruit trees, which is recited once a year during the month of Nissan, we should pray that any souls stuck in that tree, or other trees and plants, should have a Tikkun. Similarly, it is customary to study Torah, especially Mishnah, light a candle or candles, and to recite brachos over foods on a Yahrtzeit to provide a Tikkun for the soul that is celebrating the Yahrtzeit.

The answer to the second question is that there are not necessarily so few psychopomps, as these names are not necessarily individuals, but rather types, of which there may be a high number of individual angels providing that task as needed, as sent by God.

The third question was addressed above, as the role of Psychopomp is mainly an angelic one, and not a human one, and that people who die do not become angels. (Those who were taken to heaven alive, like Elijah and Enoch, do become angels, but not people who die). However, I have heard stories that people can also serve part of the psychopomp role, whether being dead or alive. A major part of the traditional Jewish funeral rites have the people involved be sort of living psychopomps, to make sure the departed has a safe journey. We usually say that the soul remains close to the body until it is buried, and is not always immediately aware of their death, thus we are required to have respect when performing purification and burial rites, and avoid talking too much as so not to annoy the dead, who may try to talk back and be fustrated that they cannot be heard.

There is no such thing a Jew who believes in the Torah as true being less or more religious. Nobody is perfect, and Hashem understands our faults, and He forgives us as long as we repent, and do not insist that we are right if we do something He says is wrong according to the Torah. It is our job to learn as much as we can, and try our best to live up to the Torah, and not to justify our own sins, but rather to humbly admit them to God and ask Him to help us to be better. Every Jew has tremendous spiritual powers, and the Torah is our guide to actualize them. When we do any mitzvah we accomplish huge spiritual acts, helping to fix both the spiritual and physical world.

Rabbi Joe Kolakowski
Richmond, VA

Rosh Hashana and Simchat Torah

Filed under: Sukkos, Rosh HaShanah

Question: If Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the year and the time of Adam’s birth why do we not start the cycle of reading the Torah until Simchat Torah? Shouldn’t Simchat Torah and Rosh Hashana technically occur simultaneously?
Answer: Thanks for your really excellent question. Everyone in the world, not just Jews, pass before G-d in review on Rosh Hashana. It’s the beginning, but it’s a general beginning for the whole world.

But as the Jewish month of Tishrei progresses, the process continues to unfold in a way that is specific for Israel. Yom Kippur for change and reconciliation, Sukkos for the joy and closeness that is now restored, and finally, Shemini Atzeres, which our Sages say represents G-d’s full attachment to Israel. “Then you will be fully joyful.” “Please stay with me for just one more day – it’s hard for me to let you leave!” Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah is the culmination of the process that Tishrei represents. It is only then that we can truly celebrate the Torah, the physical manifestation of our bond with G-d.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

The Sages Eternal Decrees

Question: When the Sages ruled not to take medicine on Shabbat, because you may come to grind it, although this is done in some circles, most of the time people do not grind their own medicine. Why would a ruling like this still exist? It would be more logical to decree something like this: Don’t use water unless your hot water tank is turned off, because you may accidentally use hot water. That seems much more common than pestle and mortar.

Obviously the the question does not only concern pills, but any time the Sages words are followed today. Thank you in advance for clarifying this concept.

Answer: According to many sources (Radvaz, Meshech Chochmah, Etc) all of the enactments of the Sages were already hinted to in some way in the Torah (through various expressions, letter shapes, letter crowns called togim, etc) and were supposed to be enacted at some point through history.

Only the Sages of the Talmud and earlier had the power to make the enactment, since they were keyed in to the written and oral Torah in such a way that they knew how, what and where it was was feasible (not too hard on people) to make such an enactment.

Those enactments remain binding even today (medicine on Shabbos) because even though there was a practical reason for the enactment, there was also a deeper idea which is often not readily apparent.

An example of this is 2nd day of Rosh Hashana, even in Israel. While the Talmud says that it was enacted due to witnesses coming to the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court) too late in the day, the comments of the Zohar state that we needed a second (lighter) judgement on day 2 in order to merit a good, new year. Clearly, there is a deeper reason for the 2nd day which the Talmud didn’t reveal. This is true with most decrees of the Sages.

The question is, if they were hinted to in the Torah, why weren’t they just made to be like all Torah? Why wait till the Sages enact them? Rav Aharon Lopiansky discusses this (I believe its this one) and cites sources that say the Torah laws are those that every parent has for a child. However there are some laws that a parent can’t mandate, but a sensitive child should do (like buying the parent a gift for a birthday). The former are true for our relationship with G-d in the area of Torah laws and the latter is true of Rabbinic enactments.

All the Best,
Rabbi Meir Goldberg,
Meor Rutgers Jewish Xperience
Rutgersjx.com

Hatarat Nedarim - Annulment of Vows

Question: What is Hatarat Nedarim? Why is it prayed so many times? What is the importance of this prayer, what do we learn from it? What happens with the promises that we are sure we did but not accomplished?

Answer: Hatarat Nedarim is a process to absolve oneself from forgotten unfulfilled vows. If one needs a specific vow he cannot keep to be absolved he must appear before a Beit Din of three knowledgeable scholars and specify the vow before them and they will try to find a loop hole. Before Rosh Hashana we try to absolve vows we are not certain about, in order to enter the New Year with a clean slate. Not keeping one’s vow is a serious offense, and especially if we resolve to G-d that we will improve this coming year, we must first make sure that our word means something. That’s why it is repeated. Have a shana tova!

Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum
Cleveland, OH

Who Wrote Psalms?

Question: Who are the authors of psalms?

Answer: The Talmud (Bava Basra 14b) mentions ten people, in addition to David, who authored Psalms: Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heiman, Yedusun, Asaf, and the three sons of Korach. Rashi explains that these were (respectively) Psalms 139, 110, 89, 90, 88, 62 and 77, 50ff, and 42ff.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schrieber


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