Thursday, November 29, 2007

Grand Ole Storahtelling

By Naomi Less

Storah On The Road

On November 11th, I made the trek out of the safety of culturally and Jewishly hip New York city, down to Nashville, TN. Program Director Jake Goodman and I proudly represented Storahtelling at this year's UJC General Assembly in OPRYLAND! Through our incredible supporters - Bikkurim and the Lipman-Kanfer Foundation - Storahtelling was able to create a great presence promoting both the upcoming Becoming Israel performance, a new play marking Israel's 60th Anniversary, as well as our training programs and Maven Torah performances. Jake and I heard endless cries of excitement when GA folks saw our big orange banner and realized Storahtelling was at this major Jewish event. Many cities were excited about the possibility of building Israel programming in their communities centered around one major event – a performance of "Becoming Israel". They were eager to explore how different groups and age cohorts (teens, young adults and adults) could all come together for one community cultural event and then have follow up workshops to deepen the experience.

It was no surprise to me, as a founding company member, that there is such positive brand recognition across the North American Jewish community at the GA. Jake and I were proud to also attend the prestigious Covenant Awards ceremony held at the GA. As Covenant Grant awardees, we had an incredible time networking and connecting with other cutting edge Jewish educational institutions and programs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Father Knows Best: Parshat Vayshev

By Annie Levy

Verse Per Verse

To paraphrase the famous Phil Larkin quote,
"They mess you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you."

Jacob's life was shaped through parental favoritism. He was his mother's favored son, just as his own father, Isaac, was ultimately preferred over Abraham's other son, Ishmael. So maybe we can't be too hard on Jacob for his part in Joseph's seemingly inflated sense of self; for Jacob, favoring one child above the other is learned behavior, bordering on hereditary. But now the stakes are higher; this is a big family and there are many additional bigger, stronger siblings noting the imbalance of paternal affection.

We have arrived at Vayeshev, the story of Joseph, he of the notorious colorful coat, where being your father's favorite leads to a complicated journey to identity. Although the parsha begins with Jacob being settled in the "land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan," this story will unsettle us, literally, and lead us down into Egypt where we will remain until our hard earned exodus.

But before Joseph gets sold into slavery, before being put in charge of the house of Potiphar, before he ends up in prison an accused rapist and before he becomes dream interpreter to his fellow incarcerated, before the story we know so well where we all end up in Egypt, there is small moment, a brief interchange that serves as the point of no return for Joseph.

When Jacob sends Joseph out to join his bothers, after Joseph has raised familial tension levels to their boiling point by recounting his dreams, Joseph reaches Shechem, the place where Simon and Levi enacted their form of justice for the rape of Dinah, as commanded by his father. But his brothers are nowhere to be found. There is a great moment of disorientation and listlessness on Joseph's part when he arrives in Shechem and his brothers are not there. Indeed, he is described in the Torah as "wandering" or "blundering" or "straying" in a field. There are not many moments in Torah when a person loses his way, even temporarily, so this is a moment begging to marked.

And when we look, what do we see? It is an important moment for the young Joseph– life as he knows it is about to end completely, forcing him to embark on a strange new journey unlike anything he has dreamed about. But he has inherited such a moment as this from his father, whether he knows it or not. Jacob has had two such life altering moments so far in his life, moments prior to great change. The first was the night Jacob ran away from home after fooling his father into giving him his brother Esau's blessing and birthright. The second was the night before Jacob is reunited with his brother for the first time after stealing the birthright. On both occasions and in both prolonged moments, Jacob is visited by the divine: Once through a vision where heaven and earth connect and once through a wrestling match where Jacob and heaven connect and Jacob is renamed Y'srael.

Now, nothing seemingly as dramatic happens to Joseph in this, his crossroad moment, just a brief encounter with a man who has seen the missing brothers and thinks he overheard them say that they were pushing on to a different location, Dothan. The name `Dothan' can come from the word `dath' meaning justice or law (Moshe Reiss). Is Joseph being summoned to his brother's justice? Or perhaps this just proves we often do not know the significant role we play in each other's lives. Joseph presses on after his brothers and whatever will be, will be.

So who is this man who alters the course of one man's life? Maimonides suggests that this man is an angel, sent to make sure that Joseph completes the journey his father sent him on and thus begins the journey he is destined to take. This is interesting to note, considering that God never does speak to Joseph directly, in stark comparison to his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Perhaps this is why Robert Alter argues that trying to see the man as "a messenger of fate" has "little textual warrant," but the point is Joseph is being "directed… to a disastrous encounter." (This makes the man a prime example of what Free to Be, You and Me will later describe as offering "the kind of help we all can do without.") But, Rambam points out that, no matter who this man is, angel, messenger, bystander, his words have larger significance than his intentions in speaking them. For this journey that his words will force Joseph to take will fulfill the prophecy made to Abraham, his great grandfather, many years before. Thus leading us right back to the Larkin quote, "They may not mean to, but they do…"

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Parashat Vayishlach: Thanksgiving is Family

By Melissa Shaw

Verse Per Verse

My mom just called me from the market to inform me that my grandmother is not to know that she is not using Miracle Whip in the chopped liver and what else did you say you needed from the produce aisle?

It’s Thanksgiving and my mother is wrestling with Tomatoes that cost $1.99 a pound, gravy, and my vegetarianism.

Thanksgiving, whether we like it or not, is about family, family that we choose not to go home to see or family that insists that you try the canned Jellied Cranberry sauce instead.

Angry, stuffed, happy, or disappointed family is family. You don’t pick yours, they don’t pick you. You get thrown into a big mess that you weren’t ever anticipating. Divorce, car payments, children- no one ever played house thinking about therapy bills. This time of year gives us the opportunity to get together with people we thought we might not be able to talk with again. It is an opportunity to heal old wounds, come out of the closet, and eat.

In this Parsha, Jacob is reuniting with his Brother Esau. No one is quite sure how this family reunion is going to go. Are you still mad about that little thing that happened when we were young where I stole your Birthright and changed your life forever? No, ok, than please pass the mashed potatoes. Maybe.

When we meet Jacob, after he has wrestled with the Eesh, the angel, and perhaps even his demons, we see a man with new injuries, new understandings, and a new name. He goes into his meeting with Esau as that man. A man now called Israel; one who wrestles with God.

Jacob, prepared with offerings, comes face to face with family he has not seen in years. A brother who could have easily killed him as welcomed him. But Esau, wouldn’t you know it, accepts his brother, tells him there is no need for reparations, and to go with God.

But Jacob responds:

No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.

Jacob would know. Jacob had just seen it.

So can we make the leap that family is the face of God? Maybe we can.

Who are these people we come into the world with? These people who help us and make us crazy. These people who know us in ways that no one else can? They could very well be as much God as the flowers, trees, Scriptures, and angels. They certainly know how to get us in and out of trouble.

In Chapter 34 we hear that Dinah, Jacob’s daughter with Leah, is caught and defiled by Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country. Jacob hears the news and remains calm until his sons return. Her brothers return, hear, and are less than calm.

When Hamor comes to them and asks for Dinah’s hand for his son, no one is thrilled with the prospect. However, Jacob says, thinking his request a deal breaker, that their families will only be allowed to intermarry if Hamor, his son, and their whole family, become like them and go through circumcision.

Hamor makes an announcement to the people of his community, all in ear shot agree to the terms and are circumcised. You know, to blend.

Now here’s where we learn something more about Jacob’s family. While everyone is recovering from the loss of their foreskins, undoubtedly packed with the biblical-desert equivalent of an ice pack, Levi and Simeon slip into the village and slaughter everyone.

I think they were trying to let everyone know that they hand changed their minds. Jacob was not happy with the deeds of his sons and chided them. Levi and Simeon did not mince words. They said to their father, “should our sister be treated like a whore?”

What happened in the land of the Hitvites was the ultimate big brother show down and perhaps a reminder that blood is thicker than water and is certainly thicker than forced circumcisions.

So family matters. Whether it is long lost brothers who surprisingly welcome you after decades or who take revenge for rape.

So, is family the face of God? Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But at the very least, they have your back and if you are lucky, accept that you are not going to eat the turkey on the second to last Thursday of November.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Becoming Israel at Temple Beth Or in Maple Glen, PA

By Franny Silverman

Storah On The Road
And Jacob was left alone, And a man (EESH) wrestled with him until the rising of the dawn.
(Gen 32:25)
"What is your name?"
"Your name will not be said: Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with the Divine and with people and were able."
(Gen. 32:28-29)

This weekend, four Storahtellers and over 500 congregants of Temple Beth Or in Maple Glen, PA consciously became Israel once again.
Since 2002, Storahtelling company members and affiliated artists have been wrestling with the Torah text of Jacob wrestling. In 2005 we realized this text demanded a greater show, not for only one shabbat out of the year, but for every day, because every day we, as Storahtellers, found ourselves wrestling with what it means to be "God-Wrestlers".

We have in this time:
- Created countless Bibliodramas, writings and performance compositions inspired by this text.
- Created and performed over 6 different translations and interpretations of this text
- Choreographed and performed the famed wrestling sequence more than 3 different times
- Written at least 3 separate pieces of music to illustrate this event
- "Drashed" through performance the idea of the EESH being Esau, Jacob's subconscious, Jacob's past, the Divine, Jacob's inner demons.
- Challenged congregational audiences in South Florida, Upstate New York, Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City with what it means to BECOME Yisrael, to BE "The Children of Israel"

This weekend marked the premiere of the culmination of our work. On Friday night, after the silent meditation and before the kaddish, the congregants of Temple Beth Or found themselves with the Matriarch, Leah, on the banks of the Jabbok River witnessing the iconic biblical events of the text above. They were with Rachel and the thousand other Holocaust survivors aboard La Negev sailing towards a new life in Palestine and wrestling with the ghosts of the past. And they were with the ambivalent college student, Jake, on his first trip to Israel, when he met the American who urges him to make Aliyah and the Arab man who shares a piece of history that his tour guide is not teaching him, and then competed with him in an ultimate game of backgammon/shesh-besh against an Israeli soldier who (sort of) shares his name.

Havdalah attendance tripled after Friday's performance and so on Saturday night, twenty-four hours later, in a converted farmhouse in the homiest of barn mansions that I have ever seen, we did a lovely Havdalah bringing back the characters from Becoming Israel and old faves like "Ain't No Sunshine" and Debbie Friedman. We ended with a rousing round of "This Little Light of Mine". Avi Fox-Rosen and Shawn Shafner led with the support of Melissa Shaw, Annie Levy and myself and it was awesome. We segued into a talkback about the show where congregants had the opportunity to share their thoughts and to ask questions about the piece:
"That was me. I might be older than Jake, but I just went to Israel for the first time last year, and I had that same experience."
"I was crying the whole way through..."
"My Grandmother left Europe on a boat just before the war..."
"Jake is our son!"

We finished off the weekend with workshops on Sunday for the Hebrew school. The kids were wonderful. Picture two rows of 10 year olds facing each other. One row is of "Jacobs" and one row is of "Angels".
One of us called out 5 specific moments in the show and the kids accompanied the storytelling with full-body gestures representing the actions. In chorus, they showed us:
1. Wrestling
2. Being Injured/Injuring Jacob
3. The sun coming up

And then in dialogue, one after another, with accompanying words, they showed us:
4a. Angels: "I need to leave"
4b. Jacobs: "Give me a Blessing"
5a: Angels: "Your are no longer Jacob. Your new name is Israel."
5b. Jacobs: "My name is Israel

Looking forward to many more opportunities to wrestle with Becoming Israel!

First Kiss, End of Days: Parsha Vayetze

By Jeremiah Lockwood

Verse Per Verse
At times the degree of intimacy the Torah affords us in its glimpse into the lives of our ancestors is almost too much to bear with composure. When Jacob, our father, first set eyes on his destined bride, Rachel, we are told, "Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept." (Genesis 29:21) This image of a strong young man over awed by his emotions is moving both by merit of its tenderness and by the melancholy sense that in the beginning, in the sweet embrace of first love, is a subtle flavor of the end and of the pain love yields for the lover. Indeed, Rashi teaches that at the moment of his first kiss with Rachel, Jacob received the power of prophecy and he saw that his life with her would be strewn with trials and that they would not merit to die together and end this life in peace, side by side.

At the beginning of this week's parsha, Vayetze, we are offered another glimpse of Jacob's visionary power and of the overlap between the qualities of emotional wisdom and prophetic gifts. We first see Jacob in this parsha obeying his parents' command to flee confrontation with his brother Esau and go to their ancestral home of Haran to seek a bride among their kin people. His journey brings him ineluctably to what is called in the pshat "the place," but B'reishis Rabah identifies as Mount Moriah, the site where Abraham offered up Isaac as a sacrifice and where later the Temple would be built. This place, this moment in our collective history, time and again acts as a fulcrum of emotional activity. It is this place of spiritual crisis, where Jacob's grandfather nearly slew his father and the entire concept of faith rooted in a personal dialogue with G-d was put to the test, that Jacob is drawn to revisit in his own time of crisis and transition.

Jacob lays down to sleep. The Midrash teaches that it is noteworthy to state that Jacob slept because it was his usual habit to stay up all night studying Torah. If one overlooks the anachronism in this statement, the image emerges of a night distinct from the usual. All habits and routines are broken, even the habit of religious thinking and ritual custom which can distract from real spiritual openness.

Jacob is alone with himself. In his dream that night the angels, ascending and descending a ladder, recount to him all of human history. They show him the story of his grandfather and of his father, and of the lives and travails of his sons yet to be born, and of all the generations of his progeny. At the end of the story he sees the Temple and the nightmare of its destruction. Jacob says, "How terrible is this place. This is none other than the House of G-d, wherein is the gate of prayer through which prayer ascends." On this night of fear and self-probing, Jacob initiates the Maariv prayer, the night service. The prayers of night spring forth from the dark of the soul. They are fueled by mourning for the loss of the Temple, that primordial location of the uncorrupted passageway between G-d and man. The Midrash teaches that this night Jacob spent on Mount Moriah was the eve of Tisha B'Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple. Even in the time of our mythic ancestors, before the Temple had been built or destroyed, the seed of estrangement between the divine and the human was already sewn.

When Jacob awakens, he says, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not." (Genesis 28:16) While on the one hand this statement expresses the familiar feeling of having overlooked the presence of beauty and meaning in our daily lives, I imagine that Jacob is also referring to the presence of holiness even in the place of desolation and destruction. For even as we can taste the pain of parting and the melancholy of estrangement in a first passionate kiss, we sense in the place of destruction the promise of rebirth and joy. The angelic hand that stopped Abraham's knife in mid-air may also be capable of restoring to us, Jacob's off-spring, the immediate and physical knowledge of G-d that was known to our ancestors. May it be speedily and in our days.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Fixing Broken Glass

By Amichai Lau-Lavie

Storah On The Road

Dear friends,

Today, the 9th of November, is the commemoration of KristalNacht – the night of broken glass. Today In 1938 the vandalized and broken windows of homes, shops, synagogues and schools throughout Germany became a terrible symbol of the great shattering that was to become the Holocaust of European Jewry. I woke up this morning with this image in my mind: a street strewn with heaps of broken shards of glass, empty except for one woman walking slowly, looking at the broken pieces as they reflect a bright blue sky. She is pregnant.

In some ways this image is linked to the historical date, to this week's Torah portion - and to what's happening right now in the lives of the people who are part of this community called Storahtelling – so I wanted to share with you a brief thought that elucidates this haunting image and hopefully will be meaningful to all of you who are, in so many ways, part of my family.

The pregnant woman is Rebecca, and as this week's portion, Toldot – Origins, begins, she is pregnant with twins. These are the first twins in history, and they are kicking in different directions, and Rebecca is confused and troubled – what is happening inside of her? She asks the first existential question in the Torah – 'if this is so – who am I?' And she is the first person in Jewish history to seek an answer, to investigate life's challenges – she goes to find God. The answer she receives is a complex blessing: she will become the mother of two boys, and they will become the fathers of two nations at war, two opposites who will fight for supremacy.

Jacob and Esau are born in struggle. The younger baby will grab the heel of the older one, already trying to grab the birthright, and so he is named 'the heel grabber' or Jacob. The older one, Esau, as told from the eyes of Jacob's descendents, is marked, from birth, for being the hairy hunter that defies the gentle pastoral life of the Semitic household, he is 'other'.

Fast forward to what Jacob and Esau will become in generations to come. In Judaic mythology, Jacob becomes Israel, and Esau becomes Edom and then Amalek– later on identified as the Roman Empire, Christianity, and even Nazi Germany. Rebecca is walking down a street strewn with the fragments of war between her children, then and now. What a haunting and hopeless image.

So what of the fixing? How do we not stay stuck in this grim prophecy? Where is the hope of healing and repair?

Perhaps the hope for repair, like this story of despair, is inside each one of us. I am reminded to read this saga the way we at Storahtelling have read so many other biblical tales – as a mythic allegory that is meant to give us an insight into our own inner struggles and enables us to contemplate the difficult but basic truths
of own lives. We are each of us Rebecca, carrying conflict and twin desires that sometimes clash, hurt others and are hurt ourselves. And we are each Jacob, and Esau, and the sum of their struggle. If we take this realization on, read this passage as an invitation for personal growth, not for historical and political justification of struggle, we can perhaps not only heal the historical pain by the noble act of remembering and honoring the past, but, more importantly, we can commit to reducing the hatred between others that is still impacting the future.

Nazi and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian, Democrat and Republican, militant Muslim or fundamentalist Christian – and so many others who are set up against each other in the fight for survival and supremacy: can the story be told differently? Can we start by telling this inherited story differently to as many people as we can? Can I start by identifying this story inside of me? Who is my Jacob, grabbing the heel of my inner Esau, where is my disquiet, what is the seed of my struggle to survive – and where does that stop me from being at peace with self and other?

So, yes, this is beginning to sound like a D'var Torah… a contemplation that ends with a call to action, a charge. Writing this to you – friends and family members of my Storahtelling tribe - I am reminded to remind us that this is precisely the core of this sacred work: Our goal is not to simply clarify and dramatize obscure biblical images but to actually address the burning issues of the day, to 'translate' the deeper meaning of this, or any other biblical story, into the inner life of each of one of us.

This weekend I will be presenting Maven at a synagogue in Boulder, Colorado, telling this tale of Jacob and Esau's birth (and I think I just got my opening story..), and tonight Brian Gelfand, Naomi Less, Jake Goodman and Emily Warshaw will lead a Ritualab for the Tribeca Hebrew community in downtown NYC– focusing on this story of Rebecca's search for meaning, while a team of Storatellers will travel to
Philadelphia to premiere the newest version of our newest show 'Becoming Israel' - Jacob's wrestling to become Israel, the one who struggles with life. This show, marking Israel's 60th year of independence is asking some hard questions – how does this legacy of wrestling effect our modern identity and affiliation with Israel?Under Annie Levy's directorial hand, Franny Silverman, Shawn Shafner, Melissa Shaw and Katie Down will become Israel this weekend – and I hope you will all see this show as we begin touring it soon. And as soon as Shabbat ends, Naomi Less and Jake Goodman are heading down to Nashville to represent Storahtelling at the UJC General Assembly – a whole other kind of struggle… what a packed weekend- one of many – where we get to share this new vision of the power of story with a world thirsty for new visions.

So, on this very personal note – with gratitude to all of you for joining me on the journey of fixing the broken glass of our heritage, thanks for being part of the fix-team. I hope we all get to walk down the streets of our remembered brokenness, and see the reflected vision, in each shard, of a bright future, where Jacob and Esau, hand in hand, are walking down the same street, and behind them, a smiling
Mother of All – 'the mother of the sons is happy' as it is written in the Psalms.

A Sabbath of Peace

Monday, November 05, 2007

Oy To The World

By Amichai Lau-Lavie

Storah On The Road
I didn’t know it at the TIME, but when the cabaret show about the mystery of the longest night of the year and the elusiveness of time was schduled for November 3rd – it was to be the night on which the clock changes, an hour is gained, and time, again manipulated. Amazingly, this show took place at Lannie’s Cabaret – in the basement of Denver’s famous clocktower…

Lannie’s cabaret looks like a Victorian Brothel, and feels like a cozy red velvet sitting room, where about 150 people doesn’t feel too croweded, as it indeed did not last night – full house!

OY TO THE WORLD started as Storahtelling’s Christmas Eve show and has since evolved and enjoyed several incarnaions, with last year’s version starring Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross. This year I was lucky and priveleged to have EVE ILSEN - a REAL Rebetzin and a fantastic vocal artist. EVE belted out tunes by George Harrison, Cole Porter, and even a homage to Bette Middler, accompanied by two very talented musicians – Ben Cohen on piano and Dirk Dickson on an upright bass. Me – I was telling stories – about light and dark, the journey from Christmas to Chanuka to Solstice, via Rome, Babylon, Jerusalem, a Yeshiva in NYC and a basement in Denver. All rivers go to the same sea, and all ancient stories and ritual celebrate the same miracle – light, sun, seasons changing like clockwork, year in and year out. Was it Einstein who called God ‘the great clockmaker’?

The longest night of the year is, techicnly, on the 21st of December, but I hope that last night’s show (repeated again next week on Nov. 10 in Boulder) gave the audience a taste for making the winter holidays – no matter what religion if at all –a chance to pause, take TIME OUT and find new ways of unwrapping the reason for the season.

RituaLab, Maven and Workshops in Tarrytown, NY

October 27-28, 2007

By Elana Architzel

Storah On The Road

Last weekend the incredible Naomi, Shawn, Brian, Amichai and I ( Elana A. ) ventured a little ways north of the city to visit our friend in Tarrytown. We had the pleasure of not only doing a Maven-type show but a RituaLab and two workshops as well. This was the first time I have had the experience of participating in a RituaLab that was not Storahtelling family exclusive and I have to say... I think it was a big success. So many times when we go to shul, especially those of us who grew up and go to a more traditional service know most of the service, when to get up , sit down, bow, do the whole dance if you will but never really connect with what is going on. For me, RituaLab has always been a unique way to blend the gourmet taste of Storahtelling with traditional service. As soon as those Tarrytowners enter the room with the beat of the drum... Brian on keys... and Naomi and Shawn serenading them to the sweet sounds of Mizmor Shir L’yom Hashabbat... they were hooked. The day continued in this fashion, and once we got to the Halleluah, people were fully moved by the atmosphere and of course spontaneous dance ensued. This brought us to the Torah service and a moving monologue written by Shawn delving into the Abraham, Sara, Hagar, Ishamael, and Isaac story. It forced not only us but the community to really dissect this part of our Jewish history and explore the rift between the two peoples. This led to amazing discussions and contemplations for the rest of the weekend.

One of my favorite parts of the weekend was the second workshop I got to participate in led by the one and only Mr. Shawn Shafner. It was an adult education group who truly allowed themselves to trust Shawn and be thrown full heartedly into the activities. The different perspectives and character free-writes this group did affirmed not only the importance this work and Storahtelling, but where this work can lead people in discovery. It is truly a blessing to witness and be apart of this process when someone engulfs themselves in the story and characters and allows their own translation to marinate and simmer. As we were packing up the car to leave it really felt like here is a community that loves this work so much and will continue to make sure it hold a place in their community.

Parashat Toldot Ain't Nothin but a Family Thing

By Jonathan Adam Ross

Verse Per Verse
The Torah may be our communal journal, our ancestors’ diary. And if so, what an exhilarating invasion of privacy have we committed; for we break open the book each week to read of their adventures and secrets, and we’ve made quite a few copies as well to share around with each other. But it is exciting as well to read the Torah as a piece of literature. And as in any good storybook, one can find such literary devices as foreshadowing, repetition, and reappearing marginal characters. We have a great example of all three this week in Parshat Toldot. In Toldot, God instructs Isaac to spend time in the land of Gerar in order to survive a famine. Isaac, fearing that the Phillistines of Gerar will think his wife Rebecca is hot and might kill him to get her for themselves, informs Abimelech, King of the Phillistines that Rebecca is his sister. (Breishit 26:7) וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲחֹתִי הִוא" " Sound familiar? That’s because just a few weeks ago in shul, we read: (Bereishit 20:2)

וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ, אֲחֹתִי הִוא; וַיִּשְׁלַח, אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ גְּרָר, וַיִּקַּח, אֶת-שָׂרָה.

Here we have Abraham (Isaac’s father) telling the same Abimelech that Sarah is his sister. Abimelech, in this first instance, takes Sarah for himself until God plants a dream in his head that reveals Abraham and Sarah’s true relationship and Abimelech releases Sarah back to her rightful husband. But Abimelech tells Abraham there is no need to lie to him or his people. Yet Isaac makes the same choice years later, and lies to the same king! This time, Abimelech is not so forgiving. Whereas for Abraham, Abimelech asked for forgiveness from Abraham. In Isaac’s case, Abimelech and his people drove Isaac and Rebecca from their land with repeated sabotage to their wells, flocks, and property. It seems that just as Isaac has not learned from his father’s mistakes, Abimelech has not learned from his own. Eventually, Abimelech redeems himself and his people and makes amends and apology to Isaac and Rebekah. But Isaac’s decision to deceive the Phillistines of his true relationship with Rebekah seems to presage the deceit near the end of Toldot, when blind Isaac is fooled by Jacob pretending to be his brother Esau, in an example of what I like to call Torah Karma. Sibling rivalry is not a new theme for the Torah (see: Cain and Abel) nor is this the last we see of it (see: Leah and Rachel). But what is amazing is the choice of language used in this story. When Isaac calls Esau to him, Esau says “הִנֵּנִי.” And when Jacob reports to Isaac as Esau he calls to his father, who answers “הִנֵּנִי.” And in Bereishit 37:13, when Jacob calls to his son Joseph, he is answered with the same word.

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, הֲלוֹא אַחֶיךָ רֹעִים בִּשְׁכֶם--לְכָה, וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֲלֵיהֶם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, הִנֵּנִי.

The language repetition is no mistake. Just as וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲחֹתִי הִוא repeated from Abraham to Isaac, so is הִנֵּנִי repeated from Isaac to Jacob. From generation to generation all the way down to us. So the next time you catch yourself introducing your spouse as your sibling, or answering to your identity with the word הִנֵּנִי you can chuckle with the self-satisfaction of knowing: it ain’t nothing but a family thing.