עלי. The power of a word.
You should learn Hebrew. In a moment, I will tell you the reason why. Before that, let me remind you where we are in the Torah reading cycle. Warning. It is, I have to say, one of the most distressing moments of the Biblical narrative. Isaac is on his deathbed, and he is almost blind. He has asked Esav, his favourite son, to go hunting — Esav loves hunting- and bring him something to eat. Jakov, Mummy’s favourite son, has overheard Isaac’s words and now pretends to be Esav. Mummy -Rebecca- has instructed him to wear Esav’s garments and serve his father the meal he is expecting. Rebecca and Jacob plan to steal the blessing and the birthright that old Isaac intends to give Esav.
This is called: cheating. And because we Jews are all descendants of Jakov (we are indeed called “sons of Jacob”), we are somehow co-responsible for that primordial stealing. How often are we portrayed as exceedingly cunning, able with words, inclined to con the Gentiles etc. Blame that Biblical episode for antisemitism.
To cheat, to con… These are not the kinds of behaviour you can base society on. These are behaviourS to discourage. Unsurprisingly Rabbis and commentators have found explanations and justifications for the problematic behaviour of Jackb (and Rebecca).
There are legalistic justifications. Like, for Esav had already sold his birthright to Jakov. Once he came home exhausted after a day of hunting, he was starving, and Jacob fed him with a bowl of lentil soup in exchange for the birthright. When we think of Jakov pretending to be Esav and misleading his Dad, we should think that Jakov is not cheating; rather, he is merely concluding the deal.
And then there are the pro-women explanations. Rabbis can be incredibly pro-women (don’t they?). So they take the side of Rebecca. The Rabbis explain that Rebecca knew Jakov was more suited to inherit the family business or whatever Isaac’s blessing was. Rebecca is the mother. She conceived, gave birth, raised and educated the twins, and spent a lot of time with them; Rebecca knew her sons better than anyone else. She knew their talents and inclinations, and she was 100% right in showing favouritism to the smartest of the two. Isaac’s blessing was a treasure: “May the Lord give you the fatness of the earth… Nations shall serve you, kingdoms shall bow down to you… those who curse you shall be cursed, those who bless you shall be blessed”. These glimpses of the future are uniquely beautiful. But these words were wasted on a “man of the field” like Esav, who spends his time hunting, that is in, killing animals, for fun.
Now, here’s the Hebrew word I want you to consider “Alai”. עלי Ain, Lamed, Yod. It means “On me”. Little Jakov objected to Mummy Rebecca that what she was pushing him to do was not good. And it was also dangerous; what could happen if Isaac realised that he’d been cheated?
And what does Rebecca answer? “Alai”. Ain Lamed Yod. “On me” [Gen 27:13 “On me your curse, my son”. עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי But “Alai” does not mean only “on me”. Rebecca is taking responsibility for pushing Jakov to impersonate Esav. It is the ultimate manipulation by a woman we know is manipulative. But Rebecca is also fore-telling to us, descendants of her son, the future of the Jewish people, our history, encapsulated in a single word, Alai.
I want to share with you a profound teaching from the Vilna Gaon. What does it mean “Alai”? It is an acronym. Ain Lamed Yod. These are three different threats, three different kinds of menace, that we, the Jewish people, face in our history.
ע Ain is the initial of Esav עֵשָׂו. I told you that you should learn to read Hebrew to see these names in their original writing. Esav is the physical enemy of the Jewish people. It stands for antisemitism, racism, or any other project of physical annihilation. Being under such a threat is a sad constant in Jewish history. The pogroms and the expulsions (on Wednesday, we will commemorate a series of those). The Inquisition. The genocide, the massacres… are all physical threats to us Jews. Esav symbolises all of them.
In the Biblical narrative, Jakov will confront the homicidal intentions of Esav, and after many years the two will reconcile. But the actual final reconciliation with what Esav represents; will never happen. In Jewish history, periodically, Esav re-merges with his homicidal fury. Be it the Inquisition, the Nazis, or the mob assaulting Jewish neighbourhoods in Baghdad or Algeria… they all aim for the same goal. Physical extermination of the Jewish people
The second letter of עלי is לֹ Lamed. That is the initial of Lavan לָבָן. Rebecca foretells to her son that he will meet a shrewd man, who will pretend to be friendly and hospitable, but instead, he will make Jakov work for free. Lavan also forced Jakov to marry a woman he did not love, one of his daughters, Leah, for which he finds it difficult to find a partner. But Lavan also stands for the non-Jewish society that offers so many incentives to us to renounce our cultural differences and to assimilate, to become “like us”, like those who set the cultural norms.
In the current cultural climate, is there anything more unpopular than the Jewish imperative to welcome the stranger? The general society tells us that there are already too many refugees, and we cannot welcome more. Or, go Left. Is there anything less popular than Zionism, our connection with the land of Israel? Give it up, says both Left and Right, and become “like us”. Those modern-day Lavan offer so much to those Jews who want to become their poster boy, either in the anti-immigration campaign or anti-Israel obsessions. Things were not different in the past. Jews who converted to other faith — Christianity in the Middle Age and Communism in the 20th century- are so often praised and evaluated. They always become a model to show off the way to salvation to those Jews who stubbornly refuse to assimilate
And then you have י Yod, the last letter of Rebecca’s עלי Alai. י stands for Yosef וֹסֵף . Rebecca foresees that Yosef, one of the sons of her beloved Jakov, will be hated by his brothers. They will conjure to kill him, then sell him as a slave. Then in Egypt, Yosef will make an astonishing career; he will be in a position of power, with the chance of taking revenge on his brothers… and he won’t.
Because the Yod י is also the first letter of the name of יהודה Yehuda, Yosef frames his younger brother, Benjamin, as part of his machinations to take revenge on all the brothers. He tells all of them: “You can go home, the youngest -we know he’s talking about Benjamin- will stay with me, in Egypt, -a foreign, idolater land. hen Yehuda stands up and protests “not him. I will stay at his place. Take me as a hostage”.
This is a solemn moment. This is when Yehuda demonstrates that he has learnt what it means to be a brother, what belonging to a family implies, and what is the responsibility of one Jew toward another Jew. Not by chance, we are called sons of Yakov, that is, sons of Israel, and also “sons of Judah”.
The Torah says that at this point, Yosef, moved by what he has just seen — the transformation of his brothers-broke out in tears and gave up his plans of revenge — has now learnt what it means to be a brother, to belong to a family. But that is another story and matters for another sermon — or more than one.
Today I wanted to focus on that three letters word by Rebecca, עלי “Alai”. It means “on me — let your curse fall on me, my son”, but as we have seen, also it means Esav, Lavan, Yosef and Yehuda -the three different dimensions of Jewish history. The attempts to exterminate. The pushes to assimilate. And how do you stand against that — being like Yehuda and Yosef, once they have learnt the lesson! Learning that you can go beyond all the internal rivalries and tensions and be brothers because this sense of belonging is the most powerful resource to counter the recurring attempts to annihilate us physically (as Esav) and spiritually (as Lavan).
You’d better learn Hebrew; let me repeat it again. But also, we’d better behave as brothers. Because we are responsible to each other, as said once, that Matriarch, Rebecca, with a simple Hebrew word, Alai, which does not mean only “on me” but rather tells a whole story, ours.