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Tol'dot 2021

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

In this week’s Torah portion, parashah Tol’dot, brothers Jacob and Esau are in a place of conflict for over forty years. At the end of the parashah, their father Isaac sends Jacob away to live with a relative so that Jacob can avoid the death threat of his brother Esau. Just before Jacob leaves, Isaac says to him “Go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethu-el, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.”[1]

El Shaddai, God Who Is All Sufficient, is not a name of God frequently used in Torah. The first occurrence is earlier in Genesis when God reveals God’s self to Isaac’s father Abram saying, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in my ways and be blameless. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.”[2]

God again uses the name El Shaddai when speaking to Isaac’s son Jacob, saying “I am El Shaddai; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall descend from you. Kings shall issue from your loins.”[3]

A little later in Genesis, as Jacob nears the end of his life, he blesses his son Joseph saying “May you be blessed by El Shaddai, who shall bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches below, blessings of the breasts and womb. May the blessings of your father surpass the blessings of my ancestors to the utmost bound of the eternal hills.”[4]

If we look carefully at these different uses of El Shaddai in the book of Genesis, we see a pattern. God reveals God’s self as El Shaddai to Abram and Jacob shortly before changing their names to Abraham and Israel, respectively. The relationship that Abraham and Jacob each has with God is unique. Knowing someone by name, and accepting from another a name change, a nickname as it were, is a sign of intimate knowledge of the other. Abraham and Jacob knew God – God Who Is All Sufficient – throughout their lives.

What about Isaac and Joseph? Isaac offers his son a blessing in the name of El Shaddai, and Joseph is blessed by his father in the name of El Shaddai, but neither man experiences the direct revelation of the name “El Shaddai” by God, nor does either man have his named changed by God. Does this mean Isaac and Joseph did not know God intimately?

No. Isaac and Joseph are two of our ancestors who suffered great traumas. Isaac is bound to the altar on Mount Moriah, nearly sacrificed by his father Abraham. Isaac knows God when the angel appears, ordering Abraham to unbind his son and instead use an until-then unseen ram as the sacrifice. God’s presence is so powerful and overwhelming, the midrash tells us that Isaac leaves the mountain with his eyesight diminished.

Joseph infuriates his brothers, who throw him into a pit and contemplate his murder. The brothers later pull Joseph out of the pit and sell him as a slave to some passing Ishmaelites who bring him to Egypt, a place unknown to him. In Egypt, he is placed in the household of a man named Potiphar, whose wife attempts to seduce Joseph and then accuses him of the very same action. Joseph, this time, is thrown in a prison.

While Isaac and Joseph’s experiences are very different from each other, both men remain strong in their belief in God. This is not a surprise in the case of Isaac who experiences God as an intervener who saves his life.

Joseph is “saved,” at least from the pit, by the very people who intended to harm him – and who turn around and sell him into slavery and then tell their father that he was killed by a beast. In Egypt, he is saved when he demonstrates his ability to interpret dreams – an ability he attributes to God. So, when Joseph later reunites with his brothers during a famine where he serves as chief food distributor, it is not surprising that he says to them, “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”

Rational minded Jews who experience trauma often have a difficult time finding a place for God in their lives. After surviving an ordeal, we often ask, “where was God,” assuming that pain equals God’s absence. Perhaps our mistake is in expecting Isaac’s intervening God, rather than seeking Joseph’s messengering God.

For Joseph’s God is the one whose revelation is more subtle. When we suffer grave illness, Jewish tradition does not teach or preach that that God is in the ailment or pain. God, rather, is in the moments that we are free from pain or the pain is bearable, when we have “good days.”

When we are lost and unable to find our way, God is with us as we seek a reason for our confusion, the clarity to find direction through it and its eventual resolution. When we are lonely, God is the ever presence, the source that tells us we are never alone.

In the times we feel most vulnerable and disconnected, may we, like Isaac and Joseph, seek strength in El Shaddai, God Who Is All Sufficient. Shabbat shalom.


[1]Genesis 28:3

[2]Genesis 17:1

[3]Genesis 35:11

[4]Genesis 49:26

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784