Can Personal Things be Religious?

April 20th: Tazria/Metzora
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Back in 1979, when the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Pahlavi Dynasty and brought the exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini back to Iran to rule their new “Islamic Republic,” Americans wanted to know who this religious leader was: What did he believe? What did he plan for Iran? How was his idea of an Islamic Republic going to work?

Journalists quickly got to work, and one of the findings was a book the Ayatollah had written about living a holy life. In excerpts printed in one of the weekly news magazines, we learned the kinds of things he prescribed for believers. Among them—and pardon the graphic details—were instructions on how a male should hold his organ while urinating. The implication was that this guy was going to try to control everything—and, indeed, his Islamic Republic brought a reign of terror to the people of Iran. The largely secular Iranian population suffered significantly, and one can see the gradual but persistent movement back to civil liberties over the last few decades.

I am in no way defending Ayatollah Khomeini or his government’s actions. However, I think that the news magazine misinterpreted the section of his book giving detailed instructions for non-religious activities. While we think of things like personal hygiene as non-religious, this is a new sensibility in human thinking. While we compartmentalize the various realms of our lives, the ancients saw everything as coming from God and everything as having a proper, God-created way to be done correctly. Not only did God create the Torah, but also God created the bladder and urethra. We Jews even celebrate this fact in the following traditional morning prayer: “We praise You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the World, who has fashioned the human body with sublime wisdom, creating in it various openings and chambers. It is well known before the Throne of Your Glory that, if one of the chambers would stay open or one of the openings would be blocked, it would be impossible for us to exist and stand before You in prayer. We praise You, O Lord, Who wondrously heals all flesh.”

Given the physical details of our bodies, traditional religions figured that part of the Divine creative process was how best to deal with our physicality. Thus there are lots of instructions or suggestions for parts of life that we might find shockingly personal.

In the Talmud, we read:
We have been taught: A person should wash the face, the hands, and the feet every day for the sake of the Creator, as it is said, “The Lord has made everything for God’s purpose.” (Proverbs 16.5)  (Shabbat 50b)

Beware of three things: do not sit too long, for sitting aggravates hemorrhoids. Do not stand too long, for standing too long is harmful to the heart. Do not walk too much, for too much walking is harmful to the eyes. It is best to spend a third of one’s time sitting, a third standing, and a third walking. (Ketubot 111.b)

Eight things are harmful in large quantities, but beneficial in small ones: travel and sexual intercourse, riches and trade, wine and sleep, hot baths and blood-letting. (Gitten 70a)

 In Midrash Rabba, we read:
Once, when Hillel went out for a walk, he said he was going out to do a mitzvah. What mitzvah? To take a bath (in preparation for Shabbat). This is a mitzvah? He explained, “If the statues erected to kings in the theaters and circuses are washed and scrubbed by those in charge of them, how much more should we who are created in the Divine Image take care of our bodies. As it is written in Genesis (9.6), ‘For in the image of God was the human created.’” (Leviticus Rabba 24.3)

In the Shulchan Aruch (circa 1565), we read:
One should not sit [to defecate] in a rushed or forceful manner. And one should not force himself exceedingly, so that he might not rupture the anal sphincter. (Orach Chayim, Paragraph 9)

One should not urinate from a standing position lest it sprinkle down upon his legs, if he is not on a high place, or relieving himself upon loose earth… (Orach Chayim, Paragraph 13)

One who delays his cavities [from elimination] transgresses the commandment in Leviticus 11.43, “You shall not make yourselves loathsome.” (Orach Chayim, Paragraph 17)

The thinking is that even the little details of our physical selves are part of God’s provenance and are therefore potentially holy, and this sensibility goes all the way back to the Torah. That is why this week’s passages that deal with ejaculations and menstrual fluid and various other bodily functions are included in the Torah. They too are part of God’s creation and should be treated with dignity and holiness.  

So, while there is ample reason to decry the authoritarianism and tyranny of the Iranian Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s advice on personal hygiene should not be seen as part of that tyranny. It is part of an ancient and multi-cultural sensibility in which every little detail of life is deemed religious. As we learn, we are created in the Image of God—all of us, in every detail.

 

"Why Have You Not Built Me a House of Cedar?"

April 13th: Shemini
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our Torah portion celebrates the dedication of the Mishkan, the portable tent temple which our ancient ancestors carried with them on their wanderings through the wilderness. When they arrived in the Promised Land, the Mishkan was pitched in several places, but the most famous was Shiloh. (The modern West Bank city of Shiloh celebrates this heritage with a synagogue constructed to look like the ancient Mishkan.)

Eventually, of course, the Mishkan was replaced with the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, and our Haftarah wrestles with a kind of ambivalence about which is the best setting for worship. On the one hand, the Temple was glorious: it was renowned the world over, and the closeness to God achieved there was amazing. On the other hand, does God really need such a fancy place? As God says to the prophet Nathan: “Go and say to My servant David: Thus said the Lord: Are you the one to build a house for Me to dwell in? From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle (Mishkan). As I moved about wherever the Israelites went, did I ever reproach any of the tribal leaders whom I appointed to care for My people Israel: Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?” (Second Samuel 7.4-7.)

Indeed, after the Temple was built by David’s son, Solomon, there were still holdouts among the Israelites for a simpler, nature-oriented worship: not in the midst of a great edifice in a noisy city, but on the top of a hill or in a grove of beautiful trees. We know about these holdouts because, for centuries after the Temple was built, the prophets railed against those who continued to worship at these bamot / high places.

 In modern times, many worshippers feel the same tension. Synagogue and church architecture can be wonderful, and there are some incredible buildings that give honor to God and inspire the worshippers. On the other hand, many worshippers also feel a special holiness in more natural places—mountain tops, forests, or seashores. I remember the story of one of my predecessors in Savannah, Rabbi Solomon Starrels, who used to live on the beach and found great holiness in the surf. That, said he, was where he felt the closest to God. Those of us who have spent time at Jewish summer camps can attest to the special spirituality of an outdoor chapel. In fact, if you look at the publicity materials of most camps, special mention is made of the natural holiness the campers find in these non-synagogue worship places. And, do not forget the special sense of the Divine which many pilgrims find pretty much anywhere in Israel: on Masada, overlooking the Jordan Valley, on Mount Carmel or Hermon. Even the remnant of the Temple—the Western Wall—is now an outdoor worship space, and it is certainly filled with holiness.

This curious irony can sometimes be seen at Protestant churches. On the lawn, right next to a beautiful church, many congregations will set up an old-fashioned revival tent—to get back to the simplicity of the good ol’ days, but only occasionally.

How fortunate for us that God can be met in many places—in the sanctuary and in the field, in communal worship and in solitary meditation. Remember what David said: “The Lord is near to all who call, to all who call out wholeheartedly.” (Psalm 145)

Pesach and Moral Transformation

April 6th: Last Day of Passover
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Passover is full of messages. In addition to all the lessons in the Haggadah, there are also traditional Torah readings assigned for the first and second days AND the seventh and eighth days AND the Sabbath in the middle (if there is one). In other words, the ancient Rabbis putting together the Seder texts and the schedule of Torah and Haftarah readings were working with lots of possible lessons. It is interesting to see which lessons they decided to include.

For the end of Passover, we are bidden to return to Passover’s most important theme: concern for others. Since we are supposed to be in the mindset of someone who experienced both the slavery in Egypt and the redemption, it should not be too difficult to see ourselves in the situation of those who are poor or oppressed or alienated. As we read in our Haggadah: “This holy experience can effect within our hearts and our minds a moral transformation: we pledge not to be oppressors and to do our best to set the oppressed free.”

 So, our Torah portion (Deuteronomy 14.22-16.17) gives us a kind of ethical to-do list of good and righteous things:
(1)   Save the best of your resources for a major festival to God.
(2)   Share these choice foods with the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.
(3)   Forgive debts that are more than six years old.
(4)   Be kind-hearted in collecting money due you from poor people.
(5)   If people serve you to pay off their debts, release them after six years and give them resources when they leave—so they won’t be reduced to debt-slavery again. 
(6)   Give honor to God Who is the source of all your blessings—and your freedom.
(7)   Remember and observe all of God’s festivals—for God’s blessings are with you all year.

One of the most striking things about Jewish law is the way it appeals to the heart. Oh, yes, there are plenty of regulations and rules. But, there is also an essence of sympathy and empathy at the base of it all. Notice, the basic lesson from Passover as it is stated in Exodus 23: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

And, note the way the ancient Sage Hillel summarized the entirety of the Torah: “Once a heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘I will be converted if you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.’  Shammai instantly drove him away with the builder’s measure he had in his hand.  The same man came before Hillel.  ‘I will be converted if you teach me all the Torah while I stand on one foot.’  Hillel converted him. He said to him: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.  That is the whole Torah.  All the rest is commentary.  Now, go and study.’” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31A)

When we think about how we feel—and project our feelings onto the people around us, we realize their value and our own—and the importance of behaving righteously and with kindness.

Pesach Musings on Our Jewish Mores

March 30th: Pesach
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When we read the instructions for the first Passover meal, we usually focus on the communal killing of the lambs at sundown, the painting of the doorposts, and the hurried eating of the roasted lamb with matzah and bitter herbs. However, the Torah is also concerned about leftovers: “Do not leave any of it over until morning; if any of it is left until morning, you shall burn it in fire.” (Exodus 12.8-10)

 What do you do with leftovers of a holy, sacrificial meal? They are not in the same category as regular leftovers: this is holy food, and the Torah does not want them treated disrespectfully.

This concern is found in other passages throughout the Torah. Just last week, we read: “And the flesh of his thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until morning. If, however, the sacrifice he offers is a votive or a freewill offering , it shall be eaten on the day that he offers his sacrifice, and what is left of it shall be eaten on the morrow. What is then left of the flesh of the sacrifice shall be consumed in fire on the third day. If any of the flesh of his sacrifice is eaten on the third day, it shall not be acceptable; it shall not count for him who offered it. It is pigul, an offensive thing, and the person who eats of it shall bear his guilt.” (Leviticus 7.13)

This same word, pigul / disgusting or offensive is found in Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code: “When you sacrifice an offering of well-being to the Lord, sacrifice it so that it may be accepted on your behalf. It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it, or on the day following; but what is left by the third day must be consumed in fire. If it should be eaten on the third day, it is pigul—an offensive thing, it will not be acceptable. And he who eats of it shall bear his guilt, for he has profaned what is sacred to the Lord; that person shall be cut off from his kin.”

The concern here seems to be one of propriety—of treating the sacred food and the relationship it represents with God in a respectful and dignified manner. Also, in last week’s Torah portion, there was a concern with eating a sacrificial meal while in a state of ritual impurity: “Flesh that touches anything impure shall not be eaten (in a sacrificial meal); it shall be consumed in fire. As for other flesh, only one who is pure may eat such flesh. But the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin. When a person touches anything impure, be it human impurity or an impure animal or any impure creature, and eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin.” (Leviticus 7.19-21) The Torah wants us to know that leaving sacred food to rot in an empty house—after the Israelites departed Egypt, or eating three day-old leftover sacrifices, or eating the sacred foods while in a state of ritual impurity is not the proper way to conduct one’s relationship with the Divine.

As with any discussion of propriety or impropriety, there are levels or intensities to consider. Notice how the Torah applies three different levels of penalties in regard to these pigul / disgusting behaviors. The first level is simply informing the worshippers of proper and respectful behavior. Every society or group sets mores so that its members know how to behave in various situations. Many people want to be compliant and will follow the prescribed behavior once they know what it is. The second level of penalty is a bit more ambiguous: “that person shall bear his guilt.” Apparently, there is no immediate penalty enforced by the group, but the misdeed goes on the person’s cosmic account, and God will consider it when the time comes. The third level is intriguing because of its multivalent significance: “That person shall be cut off from his kin.” In the tribal wilderness experience, this punishment might have involved abandonment—in the middle of nowhere, with no water or provisions. In the more settled agrarian setting of the Talmud, this Biblical phrase was often understood as involving exclusion from reward in the next world—making it worse than death. In subsequent generations, cutting someone off involved the cherem or ban or excommunication. The communal authorities would ban the rule violator and instruct the rest of the community to cease and desist all contact with him/her.

In the modern world—where generally we do not ban people for incorrect ritual behavior, perhaps there is another way to look at this phrase. Perhaps, rather than seeing aberrant behavior as the reason for an expulsion, we can look at aberrant behavior as a way for an individual to cut him/herself off from an affiliation. Most people are intelligent enough to recognize social mores, and they have been trained in proper and respectful behavior. When they break with respectful behavior, is it possible that they are acting out their disagreements or discomfort and voluntarily removing themselves from the group?

This brings us back to Passover and the traditional story of the four sons: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t even know what question to ask. The “wickedness” of the second son is based on the way the question is asked: “What do you mean by this celebration?” The Rabbis interpreted the word you as the child saying, “This is your celebration, and not mine.” The traditional answer is, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”  By emphasizing the words me and I, the suggestion is that this child would not have been included.

For many traditionally minded Jews, moving away from communal mores is a great sin. One who does not commit fully or participate fully in the tribe is deemed a sinner or a traitor—hence the characterization of this second son as wicked.

 On the other hand, I think that many modern Jews experience a kind of ambivalence about Judaism and Jewish behaviors. Based on a variety of factors—both sociological and psychological, they feel less than 100% comfortable and wonder how they fit into Jewish Identity and the Jewish community. When the deviate from communal customs and mores, are they being wicked, or are they just uncomfortable?

I prefer to think of this second child as standoffish rather than wicked. The question, “What do you mean by this celebration?” could be an expression of this feeling of distance. My answer would be: “Only those who included themselves as members of the Israelite people experienced the Exodus. Would you have included yourself?” I would also add, “If you do not feel part of us today, please know that we miss you, and we hope that you come back soon.”

 

Attracting the Lord's Presence

March 23rd: Tzav
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There are lots and lots of details in Leviticus, and some seem more compelling than others. In some ways, this part of the Torah is like a recipe book. As a step by step guide to offering sacrifices, it is excellent. However, without a narrative thread, Leviticus can be hard going. Nonetheless, there are some compelling lessons—where the ancient spiritual dynamic can instruct us in our own.

The sacrifices were in most cases meals—sacred meals cooked and eaten in honor of God. Worshippers would bring forth their offerings of food materials, and the priests would prepare the holy meals. Then, both worshippers and priests would share the food. Depending on the ritual purpose of the sacrifice and the relative wealth or poverty of the worshipper, various animals were brought forth: oxen, calves, sheep, goats, and even doves. Then there was the grain—probably wheat or barley. Then there was oil, and then there was wine. Sometimes, the worshippers would bring already prepared bread—and the Torah mentions several kinds, some leavened and others unleavened. Other times, the priests would mix grain and oil and make a kind of griddle cake on the altar.

The inedible parts of the animals were, of course, not eaten. These were burned until they were ashes and removed from the holy precinct. In the case of the grain offerings, some were made inedible by the addition of frankincense, and they were burned as a re’ach nicho’ach ladonai, a “pleasing odor to the Lord.”

This phrase re’ach nicho’ach ladonai is used quite a bit in the Torah, though I think the current colloquial understanding of odor as unpleasant is not what the ancients meant. Perhaps the word aroma might be a better translation. The idea was that God liked certain aromas and would come to enjoy them. The smell of certain incenses and the smell of cooking meat was pleasant, and the ancient understanding was that such good smells would attract God (or the gods) so people could offer their prayers.

The question for us—some 3000 years later—is how do we attract God’s presence? Of course, our attitude is that God is omnipresent: already here and paying attention. We do not have to get God to move from another place to our vicinity. And yet, there is still a notion of making God feel welcome. We do so with our sincerity, with our piety, with our righteousness and holiness and humility—and here are the Biblical verses which remind us how this all works:

Psalm 145.18: “The Lord is near to all who call, to all who call out with sincerity.”

Psalm 33.1: “The righteous rejoice with the Lord; it is fitting for the upright to praise God.”
Which has been interpreted by the Sages of the Prayer Book to mean: “By the mouths of the upright are You acclaimed. By the words of the righteous are You praised. By the tongues of the faithful are You exalted. In the midst of the holy are You made Holy.”

Micah 6.8: “It has been told you, O Humans, what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Fixing What is Broken?

March 16th: Vayikra
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

A great resource for studying the weekly Torah portion is “Ten Minutes of Torah,” a feature sent out every Monday by the Union for Reform Judaism. This e-mail includes a Torah commentary and an alternative view of the portion. The writers are usually Reform rabbis or professors at the Hebrew Union College, and they always combine traditional and modern insights as we search our sacred texts for meaning. (Available at ReformJudaism.org)

This week, as we start Leviticus, the main commentary is written by Rabbi David Lyon of Houston, Texas, and the alternative view (Davar Acher) is written by Rabbi Paul Cohen of Northfield, Illinois.

Given that the Book of Leviticus instructs the ancient Israelites—and their kohanim /priests—on the rituals that God requires, Rabbi Lyon focuses on the meaning of the Hebrew word, korban, which is usually translated as sacrifice. What did it mean for the ancients to bring sacrifices? “To begin, in Near Eastern cultures of the time, sacrifices on altars were brought to feed gods that were represented by statues of deities. People brought them animals, grains, and oils, among other gifts. In contrast, we learn in Torah that animal and grain sacrifices were brought by Israelites to create a link between the One God, God’s people, and the world. The priests facilitated the process, for which they were compensated; but, it was the presentation of the sacrifices by the Israelites themselves to the priests that was the most precious gift because their personal sacrifices drew them closer to God. The Hebrew root of the word, korban, means “to draw near” or “to draw close.” Unlike the English translation, “sacrifice,” which suggests losing something in the act of offering, a korban enabled the Israelites to draw nearer to God’s justice and mercy.” The rest of his message deals with the quality of our motivations when approaching God. Do we approach with our best intentions, or do we shortchange our relationship with the Divine?

Rabbi Cohen focuses his alternative view on the remedial nature of the ancient sacrifices—how many of the rituals involved restoring ritual purity or atoning for sin—and reminds us of one of the Torah’s most important life lessons: if it can be broken, it can be fixed. He writes:  “So much of this book and in particular, this Torah portion…speaks to the fact that we will commit transgressions. Some will be by mistake and some will be intentional. Regardless, the Torah clearly teaches that we have the opportunity and the responsibility to repair the damage we have done and to seek forgiveness. Forgiveness and repair are always available to us. What a powerful lesson to teach our children. You do not have to be defined by your mistakes. You can fix what you have broken.

 A story is told about the Musar master, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. One night he walked past the home of an old shoemaker, and noticed that despite the late hour, the man was still working by the light of a dying candle. "Why are you still working?" he asked. "It is very late and soon that candle will go out." The shoemaker replied, "As long as the candle is still burning, there is time to make repairs." Rabbi Salanter spent that entire night repeating to himself: "As long as the candle is still burning, there is time to make repairs." The Book of Proverbs teaches that a person’s soul is the lamp [candle] of God (Proverbs 20:27). From the simple shoemaker, Rabbi Salanter took the message never to give up on the idea that we can repair that which is broken. As long as the candle is burning you can still make repairs. As long as there is life, there is still time to make spiritual repairs as well. We can set right all the things that are wrong.”

I appreciate Rabbi Cohen’s teaching, and I think that it is very important these days—when there is so much wrong-doing. Wrongs should not be done, but they often are, and we are left with the question of responding to less than godly behavior. It clearly needs to be identified and decried, and the victims need to be heard and comforted. And, the perpetrators need to stop their evil deeds. But, can they/we ever be forgiven? Can they/we ever fix things?

I think it is a mistake to think in terms of removing the pain and making things as good as new. For many misdeeds, pain, trauma, and a sense of vulnerability persist. Things cannot be made perfect again. And yet, one hopes for a way to continue living and finding meaning in life. And, one hopes for a way for evildoers to repent. How does a sinner turn from his/her evil ways, do teshuvah/repentance, and return to God and godliness? It is an essential teaching of our religion—though it may take our best thinking to figure out exactly what real repentance may involve.

Consider this Midrash, found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10.2 and in Midrash Rabba on Ruth, 5.6.  It deals with the most evil king of Israel, Manasseh, an idolater who persecuted the Prophet Isaiah and committed every kind of evil. Eventually, he was captured by the Assyrians and tortured. “They placed him in a device made of copper. (2 Chronicles 33.11) A copper caldron with many holes in it was devised for the torture of Manasseh. After he was put into the caldron, a slow fire was started under it. When Manasseh saw that his peril was indeed great, there was no idol anywhere in the world that he failed to call upon by name: O idol So-and-so, and O idol Such-and-such, come and deliver me! When he perceived that his appeal availed him nothing at all, he said: I remember that my father had read me a particular verse, “In thy distress, when all these things come upon thee…return to the Lord thy God.” (Deuteronomy 4.30) All right then, I will call upon my father’s God; if He answers me, well and good, but if not, then all deities are alike—equally worthless. At this point, the ministering angels began shutting heaven’s windows so that Manasseh’s prayer would not come up before Him who is everywhere. They put the question to Him: Master of the Universe, a man who set up an idol in the Temple—can you possibly accept the repentance of such a man? The Holy One replied: If I do not receive him in his repentance, I shall be barring the door to all those who would repent. What did the Holy One do for Manasseh? He made an opening under His very throne of glory—so the angels could not interfere with it—and listened to Manasseh’s supplication. Hence it is written, “And he prayed unto Him, and He was entreated of him.” (2 Chronicles 33.13)

The gates of repentance are always open. What must we do to enter them?

 

 

Bringing Heaven to Earth

March 9th: Vayak’hel and Pekude
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

I often get a sense of déjà vu when I read one of the passages as this week’s portion begins:“Moses said to the whole community of Israelites: This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart is so moved shall bring these gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other fine stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastplate.” (Exodus 35.4-9)
Didn’t we already read this—back in Exodus 24, three weeks ago?!

Well, yes, we did read pretty much the same words. However, the Exodus 24 version is God talking to Moses—beginning the very long, very detailed instructions for the Mishkan, while this week gives us Moses down from Mount Sinai and conveying the instructions to the children of Israel. It’s what we could call “follow through.” It is one thing to hear instructions; it is another thing entirely to follow them. The Israelites certainly follow through, responding so enthusiastically with the requested donations that Moses has to stop them. They bring more than enough! Then, Betzalel and the other artisans get to work and follow God’s instructions precisely. The project is diligently completed, and the result is all that God and the Israelites hope it would be: God has a place to dwell in our midst. “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” (Exodus 40.34)

Though none of us have had an experience like that of Moses up on Mount Sinai—or of the Israelites in all of the miracles of the Exodus, I suspect that we have had our moments of inspiration—moments when we realized important paths to pursue. Sometimes, we follow through on these compelling ideas. Sometimes, they remain in our aspirations—as theoretical but unfulfilled possibilities. Of course, we cannot pursue every great idea or right every wrong. And, sometimes, our great insights turn out to be unrealistic or temporarily impossible. However, a mark of a successful life is our ability to take advantage of the revelations we are given and to move toward the goodness we can sometimes glimpse. This story of Moses and the Children of Israel following through and making the revelation real should be a reminder that we too are called by God and charged with making a difference in this world.

Apropos to this reminder, let me share three pieces. One is from our synagogue’s foyer and is a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson—inscribed in memory of Denise Ziff:
 “To laugh often and love much, to win the respect of intelligent persons and
the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and
to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation;
to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.”

The second is a piece by Rabbi Chaim Stern, using a number of quotations from the Psalms, the Prophets, Pirke Avot, and the Talmud.
“We live in two worlds: the one that is, and the one that might be.
Nothing is ordained for us: neither delight nor defeat, neither peace nor war.
Life flows, and we must freely choose. We can, if we will, change the world that is,
into the world that may come to be, as we were taught from of old:
Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from deceitful speech.
Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it,
Loving all human beings, and bringing them to the Torah.
The whole Torah exists only to bring peace, as it is written:
Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.
Let justice dwell in the wilderness, righteousness in the fruitful field.
For righteousness shall lead to peace; it shall bring quietness and confidence for ever.
Then all shall sit under their vines and under their fig-trees, and none shall make them afraid. 

(Gates of Prayer, page 216)

The third is a meditation on God’s Name and our role in making it great. It is in our congregational prayer book, Siddur B’rit Shalom on page 70.
“The Aramaic term שְׁמֵהּ דְּקֻדְשָׁא Sh’may d’Kud’sha means “God’s Holy Name,”
but it can also mean “God’s Reputation,” and thus does it reflect a particular Divine
vulnerability. God’s power and reputation are dependent on the behavior of God’s
people. It is nice to declare our faith in God or to have a religious experience,
but neither is complete unless we actually behave in godly ways.
Praising God is fine, but praise from the righteous is what really counts.
Sanctifying God is lovely, but only one who is behaving in a holy manner
can show the world that God’s ways are worth adopting as our own.”

Let us treasure those moments when we see something useful and important—and that we can do. And, let us endeavor to make our contributions to the World That May Come To Be.

 

 

 

 

Mining the Tradition or Losing it

March 2nd: Ki Tissa
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though the Golden Calf Incident is the big story in this week’s Torah portion, I would like to look at the passages around it: the continuing commandments for the priesthood and the sacrificial cult—a form of worship which we no longer practice. We read about this system in great detail, but we have not worshipped this way for almost 2000 years. Though there is the traditional hope about returning to the glories of Temple sacrifices, there is a strong sense among many Jews that our prayers can get us just as close to God as the ancient sacrificial meals. The great mediaeval scholar, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, even says as much: God did not need the meat or the blood. What God wanted was the attention of our ancestors and their piety and obedience. Understanding that the sacrificial form of worship is what was commonly understood as worship at that time, God turned it into part of the Israelite religion. Now, however, worship has been redefined as prayers, piety, and obedience, and therefore God has no need for sacrifices again.

This religious transformation is one of the largest changes—or, as historian Ellis Rivkin would put it, quantum leaps—in Jewish history, but it is not the only one. Think for a minute about how Chanukah has changed from a minor holiday to a major Jewish event. Think about how Sukkot and Shavuot—once major pilgrimage festivals—are now observed in minor ways, if at all. Though we often hear someone railing against the importance of Chanukah, insisting that it is a minor holiday (a statement that is historically and Talmudically true), the fact is that Chanukah has grown significantly in the last century. The insistence that Chanukah is minor is only argued because the holiday has morphed into something much more than minor.

 I used to be one of these railers, and I remember going on and on at an adult study group about how Sukkot is supposed to be much more important than it is. Complaining about the relative inauthenticity of modern Judaism because we have changed the priorities of the traditional holiday calendar, I thought I was being fairly eloquent when one of the participants cut me down and changed my thinking. “Don’t we have the right to find meaning in what is most meaningful to us? If we are not celebrating Sukkot in the traditional and emphatic way, could it be that we modern Jews do not find it particularly meaningful? Could this be a case of Judaism developing to meet the religious needs of each new generation of Jews?”

Perhaps for those of us who do not live agrarian lives, a harvest festival does not resonate with our lives—certainly not like it struck a chord with farming communities who worked and waited anxiously all summer, hoping for a good harvest. Perhaps, our ways of making a living call for a different kind of celebratory “harvest festival.” Perhaps, in our modern and decidedly non-Jewish world, a more meaningful holiday is one which celebrates the courage of standing up for our religious beliefs—both back in 165 BCE and now. Perhaps the Maccabees are the kind of role models we need now. Perhaps we are intuitively finding meaning in our Jewish Tradition in ways that feed our modern spirits.

Yes, I stopped railing and started looking at modern Jewish religiosity a little more anthropologically. Rather than comparing modern observance to that of the past and finding fault, I began to look at modern observance as Jews mining their religious tradition for ways to nurture and express their Jewish souls. So, when I see a religious change, I feel the need to invoke patience and sit back in observation. Is this an organic development in religiosity, or is it something to resist?

How, for example, am I to regard the fact that our congregation’s Saturday morning service is dying? Though Jewish Tradition has always considered the Saturday morning service to be the primary worship experience of the week, the 20th Century saw the Friday night service rise in popularity—especially in the Reform Movement. Indeed, in many congregations, people stopped attending Saturday morning services and chose Friday night instead. This is why many Reform congregations read Torah on Friday night: they want their congregants to have a full worship experience. In many congregations, the only Saturday morning services are for B’nai Mitzvah.

This is the way it was in Congregation Brit Shalom for our first forty years. According to the stories I have been told, the main and only service of the week was on Friday night, and the only times there was a Saturday morning service was for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Then, around twenty-five years ago, a group of people decided that they wanted a Saturday morning service, too. They got the minyan together and, for many years, it functioned very well. However, during the last several years, a variety of things happened to dampen participation. Some people moved away. Others passed away. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah families felt less motivated to attend services—particularly the longer and hebraically more difficult Saturday morning service. Minyans were harder to get, but we limped along. Recently, however, infirmity, death, and relocation have really hit the service hard. We get a minyan less than a quarter of the time. The only times we are sure of a full service in when we have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah—or Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. (This last year, when Yom Kippur was on a Saturday, our “minyan” was over 300 strong!) However, on an average Saturday, we’ll get four or eight worshippers, and those who come to say Kaddish cannot. I have compiled a special non-minyan prayer so that mourners can memorialize their departed loved ones, but there is no minyan, and a full service is not possible. It has gotten to the point where I say to people who want to say Kaddish, “Friday night is a much safer bet.”

So, is this a time for railing, or is this a time to simply observe the changing nature of our congregation? Can the Saturday morning service be saved, or is it like the ancient sacrificial cult and priesthood, something that was good at one time but which is simply not the way we do Judaism anymore?

Our congregation has much to celebrate: a spiritual and well-attended Friday night service, a vibrant and well-attended Adult Torah Luncheon, a very active and exciting religious school—and Tot Shabbat and Teen Torah and High Holy Day Services and a Communal Passover Seder and a film series and lots of great programming. We have lots of ways to be Jewish and to do Jewishly. We get what we want by voting with our feet. It will be interesting to observe our choices.

 

 

Wearing the Uniform of Priesthood

February 23rd: Tetzaveh
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Among the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle/Tent Temple), we read about the vestments to be worn by the High Priest. It must have been a grand uniform, with woven work of blue, purple, and crimson yarns and of fine twisted linen. There was a breastplate with twelve gem stones and gold chains. The hem of the robe had little pomegranates and golden bells all around. There was an elaborate headdress with a gold “frontlet” handing down onto the priest’s forehead. Upon this frontlet were the words, “Holy to the Lord.”

The idea was to dedicate the priest’s work to God. This was not the aggrandizement of a human, but rather the tasking of a human, and the human had to remember to stay on task—to do God’s holy work.

The ancient priesthood is today just a part of memory. Instead of sacrifices performed by the kohanim/priests, our services consist of prayers. This means that there really are no priestly duties—though descendants of the priests are honored in various ways in the synagogue. Until the Temple is rebuilt and the sacrificial worship system is reinstated, the priestly role is primarily honorific.

There is another way that we can look at this notion of priesthood—that a special group of people can be dedicated to holiness. Though the ancient priests had specific tasks to do in the Mishkan and later the Temple, all of the Israelites were charged with a responsibility for holiness. Remember what God said just before the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19.4-6

Before the rules for the priests, before the instructions for their vestments, and before the declaration that Aaron and his sons were to be the priests in perpetuity, there is this metaphorical ordination of the entire people. There is for each one of us an element of ritual and moral priesthood. We are all called to be priests!

The Rabbis understood this, and, though they did not de-emphasize the priesthood, they did craft a series of rituals that elevated individual Jews to a sense of priestly value. And, they followed the sensibility of the High Priest’s uniform, offering individuals the suggestion that they, too, can be “Holy to the Lord.” Here is how our Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, explains it (page 509):

“The gold template marked ‘Holy to the Lord’ was to remind him to direct his thoughts to God when he officiated and to protect him against feelings of excessive pride (Talmud Zevachim 88b). This awareness is reflected today in the practice of wearing t’fillin on the forehead and of wrapping a t’fillin strap around the arm and hand in a way that spells out God’s name Shaddai (Almighty). Not only the High Priest is consecrated to God but every Israelite man and woman is. The development of Jewish law and observance has produced numerous instances of obligations and prohibitions that originally were intended only for kohanim (priests) democratically extended to all Jews. This is to help us fulfill our mandate to be ‘a kingdom of priests” (mamlekhet kohanim) (Exodus 19).”

Many Jews find great meaning in wearing t’fillin during morning prayers. Many find meaning when wearing a tallit—as weaver Ruth Gaines put it, of wrapping themselves in sacred space. The same can be said for any number of Jewish observances, from wearing a kippah to keeping kosher to praying and to wearing Jewishly themed jewelry. These are all ways of declaring that we are “Holy to the Lord” and instilling/inspiring a sense of priestly mission.

Of course, the symbolism is all for a point: God is hoping that we act on our priestly potential by exercising moral leadership—choosing the right and holy way to live in every aspect of our lives. Just as the enormity of the world was created molecule by molecule, so will the world be perfected: deed by deed, righteousness by righteousness, kindness by kindness, enlightenment by enlightenment. In every place and every moment, we have the opportunity to make the vital and holy choices upon which God’s hopes depend.

The Biblical assignment of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” is both a great honor and a great responsibility. We have it in us to be “Holy to the Lord,” and God is praying that we live up to our destiny.

 

Making the Tradition Our Own

February 16th: Terumah
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

If one were to make a list of the most archaic Torah portions, this week’s would be near the top. It is the one which details the details of constructing the Mishkan—the Tabernacle or Tent Temple used by the Israelite in the desert. As God puts it in Exodus 25.8, “Let them make me a sanctuary (Mishkan) that I may dwell among them.” This is a beautiful and profound sensibility, but then we get to details about materials and building instructions ad infinitum, ad naseum. Other than the concept of making God welcome, the details and details make this one—pardon the expression—a “yawner.”

Some may suggest that other portions are equally as difficult. What about the Leviticus portions with the extensive rules for sacrifices? They are not very useful today, but if/when the Temple is rebuilt, we shall need all those rules to know how to properly worship God. Some may nominate the rules in Leviticus that deal with leprosy of the skin and “leprosy” of the house. True, our medical and mold procedures are more modern, but the morality and practicality of dealing with contagion are still relevant: Torah principles can guide us in our modern situations.

The reason that I would put this week’s portion—and the others devoted to the building of the Mishkan—at the top of the list is that these instructions are for a one-time project: something that was important back then but that is never to be repeated again. This portable “Tent Temple” was designed to travel around with the Israelites while they were wandering in the desert. Then, it resided in various locations in the Promised Land—but only until a permanent Temple could be built.

The most famous location of the Mishkan/Tabernacle was at a place called Shiloh, in what is now the West Bank north of Jerusalem. The modern settler community there constructed their synagogue in the form of the ancient Mishkan, and it is very striking. However, it is a synagogue and not the Tabernacle. No sacrifices are offered. There has not been a Mishkan for some 3000 years, and the Bible does not suggest that there will ever be one again.

So, why do we read and study this every year? The first answer is Tradition. There is something appealing and grounding and meaningful about repeating cultural forms that have come down through the generations. The second answer is Symbolism and Allegory. Ours is not the first generation to realize the problem of relevancy, and our Sages have constructed an elaborate system of symbolic explanations and allegorical lessons for the many details in the construction plans. Remember, Torah is more than just an ancient text; it is the living embodiment of the historical quest for understanding life and holiness. In so many ways, the Torah serves less as a rulebook and more as a locus for the development of wisdom.

A third answer is related to the first two. Facing such archaic texts on a regular basis keeps us in the discussion about how we can be both ancient and modern at the same time. The history of our religion shows a continuing dialogue about what old things we should keep and which old things we do not have to keep—except in memory.

As the historian Ellis Rivkin explains, each generation of Judaism has been faced with a choice about what to do with the religion it inherits. Most often, the choice is replication. Continuity is an important part of any tradition, and countless generations have practiced and taught the Judaism they inherited. Sometimes, however, there developed variations on a theme. An example is the institution of prophecy. At first, the prophet was a tribal leader, a patriarch like Abraham. Later, leaders without tribal seniority but with national responsibilities—like Moses, Joshua, and Samuel—were the prophets. Still later, prophets did not have any political or military authority, functioning rather as advisors and commentators. Nathan, Isaiah, and Elijah were these kinds of prophets. Such variations did not happen very often, but, when they did, it was because the conditions of the world and the needs of our sacred mission demanded adjustments. On three occasions, however, small changes were not enough: the survival of our people and the continuation of our holy work required changes so large that Dr. Rivkin terms them mutations or quantum leaps.  After the Temple was destroyed (586 BCE) and some exiles returned from Babylonia (circa 500 BCE), so much was different that resurrecting our people, our civilization, and our mission required significant changes: the limiting of the priesthood to one family, the elevation of the priests to political and religio/social leadership, and the compiling of many sacred stories into what we now know as the Torah. The other two mutations were the transition from Priestly leadership to Rabbinic (circa 165 BCE) and the development of modern Judaism (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) with its belief in individual religious autonomy.

In every generation, the question has been: what in the Tradition do we continue, and what do we change? This has been a thoroughly Jewish question ever since Sinai. During the last 200 years, the basic position of Reform Judaism—and actually of Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, though they use different language—is that traditional components that are meaningful should be continued, and those that are not meaningful can be put aside. Here’s the way the Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism stated it in 1885:
“We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”

Which ceremonies of traditional Judaism elevate and sanctify our lives? There has often been consensus but never unanimity in the movement. And, the consensus has changed in significant ways over time. Kippot and Tallitot were originally worn, then not worn, and now are worn again. Hebrew was the main part of the service. Then the vernacular became the main language of prayer. Then, in the last 40 years, Hebrew has made a comeback. As the movement itself explains, Reform is a verb. We are not Reformed Jews. We are constantly reforming as we approach life and religion seriously and craft and re-craft our religiosity in ways that elevate and sanctify our lives.

So, when we read about the Mishkan and all those mitzvot that no longer apply, we put ourselves into a very traditional Jewish conversation. We have a tradition that we revere. How do we use it to continue and enhance our sacred endeavor?

 

"Loved, Each of Us, For the Peace We Bring to Others"

February 9th: Mishpatim
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Most of us have had the experience of feeling strange—of being out of place physically or psychically. Though some of us have “never met a stranger” and seem to be able to negotiate most situations smoothly, there are times when we have not fit in and felt awkward, self-conscious, and perhaps even alienated. These are times of vulnerability, and the reaction of those around us—those among whom we are out of place—is very important.

In the case of our ancient Hebrew ancestors, we began our years in Egypt feeling strange but being welcomed. We were semi-nomadic shepherds in a settled agrarian society. The Egyptians, apparently, did not like the taste of lamb or the smell of sheep, so there was a social problem. However, given the great respect Pharaoh had for Joseph—and therefore Joseph’s family, Pharaoh welcomed us with a place of our own, Goshen. Our strangeness was negotiated, and our lives were good. Things changed later, however, when a new Pharaoh “did not know Joseph:” our strangeness was turned into a rationale for oppression, and we were enslaved and treated terribly.

Our experience of strangeness and both good and bad treatment leads us to two complementary ethical texts from the tradition. The first is in this week’s Torah portion. In Exodus 23.9, in the midst of dozens of very specific laws and regulations, we find an almost psychological mitzvah: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The complementary text comes from the Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, 31a:
“Once a heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘I will be converted if you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.’  Shammai instantly drove him away with the builder’s measure he had in his hand.  The same man came before Hillel. ‘I will be converted if you teach me all the Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Hillel converted him. He said to him: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.’”

 As correct and reasonable as Shammai is, Hillel uses the opportunity to teach the convert and us an important lesson: we should think about how we do not want to be treated and then be sure to accord others the same respect and consideration we want for ourselves.

Notice also how the two passages transform a meta-experience—the oppression of a whole nation—into interpersonal advice. Though enslavement and mass murder are clearly more egregious evils, our Tradition realizes that social interactions can also have a kind of brutality, and we are urged to be kind and respectful in both the large and the small realms of life.

Let me share two competing examples. The story is told of a college president who used to invite new faculty members to dine at the presidential mansion. Given the rural setting of the college, many of the faculty were fairly poor scholars from unsophisticated backgrounds. The president’s wife knew this and would serve artichokes—full steamed artichokes—and wait to see if the new teachers knew how to eat them. Apparently, she enjoyed watching them squirm as they tried to figure out what to do with this strange-looking thing. It wasn’t murder, and it wasn’t illegal, but it was unkind to make them feel out of place and strange. One would think that she would have remembered her own moments of social unease and then not have visited similar awkwardness on her guests.

Another is a story about the famed rabbi and professor, Abraham Cronbach. He was famous for his pacifism and for his willingness to officiate at the funerals of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. After their conviction for treason, many rabbis were frightened to give them the dignity of a Jewish funeral—lest their own patriotism be questioned. But Dr. Cronbach was a man of deep conviction who adhered to principle on both the large national and small interpersonal stages. Once, when chaperoning a dance—and noticing the social awkwardness and embarrassment of those who were not invited to dance, he mused, “If I could live my youth again, I would attend all the dances and dance only with the wallflowers.”

Look into your heart and remember those awkward, embarrassing, and perhaps even painful moments where you were a stranger. Think about those feelings and remember Hillel’s words: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

We can also remember this prayer composed by Rabbi Richard Levy:
“May we gain wisdom in our lives,
Overflowing like a river with understanding,
Loved, each of us, for the peace we bring to others.
May our deeds exceed our speech,
And may we never lift up our hand
But to conquer fear and doubt and despair.
Rise up like the sun, O God, over all humanity.
Cause light to go forth over all the lands between the seas.
And light up the universe with the joy
Of wholeness, of freedom, and of peace.”

God and Competing Goods

January 12th: Va’era
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

It is hard to know when the opening dialogue in this week’s Torah portion takes place. It seems the kind of conversation that would be part of the Burning Bush story three chapters ago. There, in Exodus 3, God tries to convince Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the Israelites’ freedom. Moses has all kinds of reservations, but, eventually, he accepts God’s mission. That was all last week. Now, as we begin the new portion in Chapter 6, we seem to be right back in that same dynamic: God is again trying to persuade Moses of the importance and eventual success of the mission:
“God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord (YHVH). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my Name YHVH. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord!’” (Exodus 6.2-8)

The repetitiveness could mean that this passage is another version of the original charge God gives to Moses. Or, it could be a pep talk. Though Moses is a man of faith, the task God sets for him is difficult and overwhelming, and even heroes need regular encouragement.

In any event, we have the situation of God trying to explain to Moses the origin of their relationship and the nature of the Divine. God wants Moses to understand all the factors at play in Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.

There are many Midrashim commenting on these encounters and this special working relationship, but I find one particularly helpful.

As God is explaining the whole Exodus plan to Moses, Moses realizes that this is going to take a long time. It’s just some twelve chapters in Exodus—or fifteen minutes during the Passover Seder, but God’s timetable in Exodus from the Burning Bush to the Red Sea is about a year. A year! On the one hand, freedom is wonderful. But, on the other hand, cannot God work faster? Moses challenges God on this extended time plan, and God has a mixed reaction. God’s right hand of justice lashes out to kill Moses for his impudence in daring to challenge the God of the Universe. However, God’s left hand of compassion catches the right hand before it can inflict any damage: God realizes that Moses is not challenging out of disrespect but rather out of concern for the suffering of the Israelites—some of whom may not survive to see freedom.

This Midrash teaches us a lot about God—and about our aspirations of godly behavior. Sometimes, our moral decisions involve the difference between right and wrong, but, sometimes, we must choose between two rights. Sometimes, values and principles that are good compete with one another, and we are forced to adjudicate the tension. Do we not see this in God’s situation with Moses? God is absolutely just, but God is also absolutely compassionate. What does God do when justice and compassion struggle? What do we do when we are faced with competing goods or competing principles? The answer is not easy, but we can feel close to God in this moral reasoning: working our way through the issues and principles is a godly thing to do. Indeed, God has put us on this earth to do this kind of moral wrestling. Thus can we help God to be manifested in the reality of the world.

I conclude with another Midrash. Since we are created in the image of God, and since we are supposed to pray, the question is asked: Does God pray? Of course! God prays just as we do—and, in the imagery of the Tradition, with Tallit and Tefillin. The question then becomes: For what does God pray? God prays that the Divine Sense of Justice (Midat HaDin) will always be overcome by the Divine Sense of Compassion (Midat Rachamim). Else, the world could not continue. God realizes our inadequacies, but God loves us nonetheless. God pulls for our moral progress and offers encouragement and instruction and inspiration. We’re all in this together: God and humanity!

Joseph and Revenge: Seeing the Defeat of His Foes

December 22nd: Vayigash
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the standard components of many films--action films, murder mysteries, and even some period piece films (like adaptations of Jane Austen novels)--is when the bad guy gets his/her comeuppance. When the Death Star blows up in Star Wars, both in episodes 4 and 6, when the villain in every James Bond story gets blown up, or even in Pride and Prejudice, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh sits fuming in her parlor alone—whilst Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy enjoy their wedding, there is something immensely satisfying about revenge. When the scales of justice return to balance, when Evil is punished, and when the heroes emerge from darkness, we feel great relief and, dare I say it, joy!

One would expect this kind of thing in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Though Joseph’s youthful behavior is immature--prancing around with his coat of many colors and tattling on his brothers, he certainly does not deserve being sold into slavery. And so, after many years of abandonment and suffering, and after a number of years of power in Egypt, the appearance of his brothers begging for food must bring up a host of memories and emotions. The reader anticipates some kind of revenge. 

There are those who would say that the game he plays with them--interrogating them and then insisting that their youngest brother, Benjamin, return with them for more grain, and then framing him for theft when he does return--is a kind of revenge, but one can also see this as a kind of test. Have they developed, Joseph wonders, some moral maturity and responsibility? Have the experience and consequences of betraying their brother taught them anything?

In any event, Joseph does not take revenge. He gives them grain and invites them to live in Egypt. He arranges for good grazing land for them in a place they can call their own. He continues his largesse even after their father dies. As the Torah puts it, he speaks to them reassuringly and with kindness, “Fear not. I will sustain you and your children.”  (Genesis 50.21)

Would we do the same in such a situation? Would we welcome our families, or would we ignore them? Would we treat them well, or would we make them suffer? Though few have had the same experience as Joseph, many of us have had situations where revenge seems to be in order. How do we deal with this inclination?

The Psalmist (92.12) gives an interesting subtlety: “I shall see the defeat of my watchful foes, hear of the downfall of the wicked who beset me.” His ideal is to enjoy their difficulties but not to be the agent who brings them about. Of course, Psalm 92 is speaking about God's justice and God's long term victory. Though we may suffer from the evil deeds of evildoers, God will have the eventual victory. “Though the wicked sprout like grass, though all evildoers blossom, it is only that they may be destroyed forever—while You, O Lord, are exalted for all time!” (Verses 8-9) The evil may think that their victory over good people is permanent, but God will be the victor in the end, and their wickedness will ultimately do them no good. We could call this a kind of revenge projection: we do not do revenge ourselves, but we trust that God will bring about justice—and we look forward to enjoying the news. 

Perhaps it might be helpful to think about God's feelings on such matters. We may enjoy hearing about the downfall of evildoers, but does God? Does God enjoy punishing them? The Tradition, through the Prophets, the Midrash and the Machzor (the High Holy Day prayer book), insists that God does not. God hopes for repentance. God wants it and only dispenses justice reluctantly. Remember the quotation from Ezekiel 18.23 that we read every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “It is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live.” The Machzor adds, “Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You.”

 Perhaps Joseph is thinking in these terms when he realizes who these shabby Hebrew shepherds are. Perhaps he looks at them with godly eyes, disappointed that they behaved so badly in the past, but hoping that they have improved—hoping that they have become more godly.

He could also be thinking in more eternal terms—realizing that this is all a test of his faith and goodness. There is certainly the traditional line of thinking in which the slings and arrows of fortune are less important than the way we respond to them. Remember Rabbi Jacob’s counsel in Pirke Avot (4.16): “This world is like an anteroom before the World-to-Come. Prepare yourself in the anteroom so that you may enter the banquet hall.”

 There is also the possibility that Joseph realizes that he has an opportunity for some excessive kindness—kindness to those who do not deserve it. As Rabbi Jacob continues (Pirke Avot 4.17): “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life of the World-to-Come.”

 There is also the possibility that Joseph has a bit of the prophet in him and sees his own tribulations as important building blocks in God’s greater plan. We have evidence of this purview in something Joseph explains to his brothers in Va’y’chi (next week’s Torah portion). When they are fearful that, after Jacob’s death, Joseph will exact their long awaited and deserved punishment, Joseph says simply, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” (Genesis 50.20)

I certainly do not want to get in the way of your movie viewing—and really enjoying it when the bad guys get what is coming to them. However, when it is our turn for revenge, it might be helpful to think in some of the terms ancient Joseph might have had ruminating around in his head. Our enemies are children of God, and God is hoping they will repent and improve. Perhaps we should try thinking such godly thoughts; perhaps some forbearance and patience may be our noblest response.

Living Our Dreams

December 15th: Miketz and Chanukah
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Both the Torah and the Haftarah speak about dreams. In the Torah portion, Pharaoh has dreams that none of his advisors can interpret. He hears about a Hebrew lad who can interpret dreams, and he invites Joseph from the prison. “I have had a dream,” Pharaoh explains, “But no one can interpret it. Now I have heard of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” Joseph corrects the Pharaoh, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” Joseph seems to have matured and developed some humility. He is also aware that his “gift” is from God, and, of course, that God is the one sending both the dreams and the interpretations.

As it turns out, Pharaoh’s dreams come true, and the preparations proposed and supervised by Joseph save the day. Dreams, in other words, involve a message, a situation, and a response.

In the Haftarah for Chanukah, Zechariah 2.14 – 4.7, we also have a kind of dream, the prophetic dream of Zechariah that flawed human beings can do better and live up to the holiness of their rank and position. The prophet also speaks of God’s unblinking attention to their behaviors and the fact that rank does not protect one from the demands of morality or holiness: “‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.”

The Jewish thinking on Chanukah reflects these stories with a curious tension. On the one hand, we are urged to realize that all of our blessings come from God. We are mere vessels for the Shefa, the Divine Flow of Energy and Blessings. This is expressed in the second Chanukah blessing—the one on the occasion: “Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha’olam, she’asah nissim l’avotaynu bayamim hahem baz’man hazeh. / We praise You, O Lord our God, Ruler of All, Who did miracles for our ancestors at this season in those days.”  Note that the blessing speaks of plural miracles—nissim/miracles and not nes/miracle. Yes, we have the story of the miracle of the oil, but there was also the miraculous nature of the Maccabees’ victory over Antiochus and his Greek Syrians. It was an impossible fight, but God gave us the victory.

On the other hand, there was a sense among some Sages that the victory called for praise of the human beings who rose to the occasion and liberated our people from the oppressor. Yes, God gives us blessings, but human agency is necessary. We have to bring our own blessings. I do not know the origin of the dreidel game, but this sensibility seems to be reflected in its catchphrase, Nes gadol hayah sham / A great miracle happened there. Here, it is a single miracle, nes.

 Throughout our history, there has been a tension between waiting for miracles from God and taking care of ourselves. And, in the aftermath of the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (and lots of our people) in 70 CE, and the debacle of Bar Kochba’s Rebellion of 130 CE, the Sages actually militated against militant self-defense. Their attitude was most un-Maccabean, but it reflected their belief that physical resistance was futile—that it would only make the Oppressor more angry. Better, they counseled, to be faithful and patient. God would eventually send the Messiah and things would be glorious. In the meantime, just “hunker down” and be faithful to God and our religion.

This all changed radically in the 19th Century as Jewish Self-Defense groups began in Eastern Europe. Many of these individuals were also Zionists, and they brought this taking care of ourselves approach to the Land of Israel. While some were waiting for the Messiah, these Chalutzim (pioneers) saw the redemption of the Jewish people in the physical restoration of the Land and the defense of the Yishuv (Jewish inhabitants). It was a marked change in the Jewish approach, and it is a philosophy and way of living that has made the modern State of Israel possible and successful.

Theodor Herzl said, “Im tir’tzu, ayn zo agadah,” which is usually translated, “If you will it, it is no dream.” In the case of the modern Zionist movement, the dream came true because the people undertook themselves to make the vision a reality. They willed it, and they backed up their will with action.

Pharaoh’s dream called for action, and Joseph was able to guide the response that enabled Egypt and much of the world to survive. Zechariah’s dream called on the people to improve themselves—to live up to the ideals of holiness, honesty, and righteousness that God makes possible. The Maccabees had their dreams and so did the modern Zionists. In all these cases, the dreams were more than fantasies that come in the night. They were moments of awareness that called for clarity and strategic response.

Our lesson here is both simple and complex. When we have moments of clarity and inspiration—moments where dreams come forth, let us consider the possibilities that these dreams hold for us and endeavor to make them come true with our dedication, our good thinking, and our deeds.

 

Potiphar's Wife and the Latest News

December 8th: Vayeshev
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Torah is always relevant to our lives, but, sometimes, it seems like it is ripped from the headlines. In Vayeshev this week, we read about sexual harassment and false accusation, and we find ourselves hoping that the Torah can give us some guidance. When Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt (another outrage!), he is bought by Potiphar, a courtier of the Pharaoh. God blesses Joseph and make everything he does prosper—thus making him a favorite servant. In fact, Potiphar “made him his personal attendant and put him in charge of his household, placing in his hands all that he owned…” This is good. However, “Joseph was well built and handsome. After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me,’ but he refused. He said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?’ And much as she coaxed Joseph day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her. One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, she caught hold of him by his garment and said, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. When she saw that he had left it in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to her servants and said to them, ‘Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us! This one came to lie with me; but I screamed loud. And when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and got away and fled outside.’ She kept his garment beside her, until his master came home…When his master heard the story that his wife told him…he was furious. So Joseph’s master had him put in prison…” (Genesis 39.4-20)

The story assumes and Joseph states that adultery is wrong. It is both a sin against God and a sin against Potiphar. In terms of Potiphar, it is both a violation of the trust he has placed in Joseph and a violation of the ancient understanding that a wife is owned by her husband. Having an affair with her would be a crime against her husband. We moderns, of course, look at women differently. Rather than the property of either a father or a husband, we see women as autonomous human begins who should be equal to men. However, the autonomy and equality of women do not change the wrongness—the sinfulness—of adultery. Nor do our modern ideas change the fact that adultery breaches sacred trust. The question of adultery may seem a bit out of place in the current discussion of sexual harassment, but the fact is that many of these incidents would never have happened if the perpetrators took marital fidelity seriously.

The story of Joseph and the current spate of prominent men being accused of sexual impropriety are deeply troubling. These stories touch on some of our deepest fears—being abused and victimized by someone more powerful that we, and being falsely accused. There is clearly much to be said, but I would suggest the following principles to guide our thinking.

(1)   Sexual harassment is wrong. The standards of equal opportunity and liberty are clear: sexual favors should not be a condition of employment. Using the hierarchical power of a work, educational, or government structure to cajole or force sex is immoral, illegal, and usually against company policy.

(2)   The term sexual harassment is very expansive and can cover a number of problematic behaviors—some more serious than others. As explained in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, some sexual harassment behaviors are in and of themselves and immediately wrong, while others are a matter of personal judgement and preference. For example, it is wrong to make sexual behavior a condition of work or to physically assault a co-worker. However, it is not necessarily wrong to hug someone or to tell an off-color joke. It only becomes wrong if the offended co-worker expresses his/her discomfort officially, and the hugging or telling of off-color jokes continues.

(3)   Each case is individual—with its own unique context, behaviors, and motivations. It is unjust to group all these incidents together and say things like, “All men are…” or “All women are…” The adjudication of each case—in companies, in court cases, and in public opinion—should be based on the facts of each individual case.

(4)   Given the sexual energy that courses through humans and human interactions—and the various postures and attitudes of flirting or not flirting and sexual availability or non-availability, the fact is that misunderstandings and mixed signals are pretty much inevitable. Whether in high school, college, social situations, or the work place, individuals should be wary of assuming other people’s thoughts or attitudes regarding sexual activity. And, individuals should be wary of bringing any kind of coercion to these kinds of encounters.

(5)   While it is important to take seriously claims of victimization, saying that it is a moral imperative to believe victims’ claims seems a dangerous principle. We all know that some people lie—and for a variety of reasons. And, we all know that different people can regard the same behaviors with widely differing interpretations. Automatically believing someone who feels victimized is not a very judicious approach. There has got to be a way to evaluate claims without blaming or re-victimizing victims and without leaving innocent people vulnerable to false accusations. In other words, justice requires due regard for truth, subtly, and miscommunication. Justice requires diligence to facts and not resorting to platitudes or generalizations.

(6)   Repentance should always be a possibility. We are taught that God welcomes our teshuvah—that it is possible to ask forgiveness and find a path back. This obviously involves acknowledging that one has done wrong and caused damage. And, this obviously involves stopping the sinful behavior. And, this obviously involves asking forgiveness of the individuals who have been harmed.

As I read each scandal, I find myself wondering, “What was this guy thinking?” Was he an amoral manipulator who felt that his power and status entitled him to sexual favors? Was he a hapless fellow who thought inaccurately that he was a “player” and therefore desired by all he met? Was he misreading the signs of sexual availability—just figuring that the other person was interested? Or, was he guilty of insensitivity, thinking that something unfunny was funny, something witless witty, or something grotesque subtle and persuasive? We do not really know about the sinners in the spotlight, just as we do not really know the thoughts of Potiphar’s wife. All that we should know is that coercion in sexual matters is wrong, as is false accusation. In this remarkably sensitive area of life, we need to be very careful and treat the sensibilities of our fellow human beings with great respect.

 

God's Love For Us, Despite Our Unworthiness

December 1st: Vayishlach
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Torah portion this week starts with some high anxiety. Jacob is returning to the Land of Canaan (at the instruction of the Lord) and sends word to his brother Esau. As you may recall, there was some hostility between the brothers when last they met. Jacob stole Esau’s blessing, and Esau’s response was to threaten Jacobs’ life. So, with maturity and wealth and the passage of some twenty –one years, Jacob is hoping for a peaceful welcoming. The anxiety explodes when the messengers return with this news: “Esau himself is coming to meet you, and he has 400 men with him.” (Genesis 32.7) It does not say “400 armed and angry men,” but that is what Jacob seems to hear.

Greatly frightened, he divides his retinue into two camps—so that, at least, one can escape, and then he turns to God in prayer: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you!’ I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant; with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.” (Genesis 31.10-13)

Part of Jacob’s pitch is to remind God that this return trip is only because of God’s instruction. “You’re sending me on this journey. It isn’t to get me killed, is it?” Added to this is the promise, mentioned twice in a fairly brief prayer, that God has promised to take care of Jacob and his growing family—to “deal bountifully” with them. A massacre would spoil everything—for God (and us)! Yes, Jacob is using every argument he can muster. “Please, O Lord, save us!”

Nestled within his plaintive plea is a note of theological import. “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant…” We usually think of unworthiness as something we are supposed to feel at Yom Kippur, when we ask for God’s forgiveness yet another time. However, this is an important theological concept that is a pillar of Judaism and a distinguishing concept from our sister religion, Christianity.

We often hear our Christian friends (especially the missionaries) speak of our sinfulness as being so significant that we can never do enough good deeds to outweigh our inherent unworthiness. Their answer is God’s grace—a love and forgiveness which people do not deserve, but that they get anyway through God’s overwhelming love and, of course, through the agency of believing in Jesus. The Jewish answer is that God knows about our imperfect nature, forgiving us when we sincerely repent and working with us in making better decisions.

In both, there is the notion of God’s love for us despite our unworthiness and how that love keeps us in God’s good graces. In Jewish theology, two terms are used to describe this concept, chen and chesed. Chen is usually translated as grace—and is the basis of many popular Jewish names: Hannah, Johanna, Ann, Johanan/John, and Henry. Chesed is usually translated as mercy or loving kindness. “The idea that God does not forget the undeserving is usually expressed by the divine quality of chesed; for instance, in II Sam. 7:15 (God's mercy will not depart from David's offspring even if they commit iniquity) and in other places like Isaiah 54:8. Since Christianity adopted the Pauline emphasis on grace and considered Jesus Christ its main vehicle, the English term grace has been avoided by Jewish writers, even though its antecedents in the Hebrew Bible are firm and formidable.” [CCAR Responsa Committee]

In Jacob’s prayer, the word used is chesed, and our translation renders it as kindness. This is similar to the use of the word in Simon the Righteous’ famous saying in Pirke Avot (1.2): “On three things does the world stand: on Torah, on Worship, and on gemilut chasadim, Deeds of Lovingkindness.” The famed archeologist and President of the Hebrew Union College (and cousin of Rabbi Jonathan Brown), Dr. Nelson Glueck, wrote his whole dissertation on this word and its many understandings (Das Vort Hesed). He maintains that the use of the word chesed involves a covenant of love or loyalty. It is not just kindness for kindness’s sake, nor is it a random, unconnected kind of decency. Chesed is kindness that is part of a relationship—and an expression of the devotion in the relationship.

As a descendant of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob is already part of that covenantal relationship with the Almighty. He also has his own covenant with God—spoken by God during the dream of the Stairway connecting Heaven and Earth, and affirmed by him the next morning. Jacob is thus reminding God of their relationship and affirming his own devotion.

An individual’s devotion to God--both in our time and in ages past—is a fluid commodity. We waver in our attitudes about God and the spiritual, and our behaviors often reflect that inconsistency. It is part of the human condition for we are called upon to live in both the spiritual and the physical worlds. Nonetheless, we are taught, God’s love for us, both chesed/kindness and chen/grace are ever-present and ever-strong. Though Jacob and we may not always remember it, God is with us, helping us, and pulling for us to be successful.

Making Fences Around the Torah

November 24th: Vayetze
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the most curious phrases (and concepts) of Rabbinic Judaism is making a fence around the Torah (asu s’yag latorah). It is found in the very first passage of Avot (Pirke Avot) and is part of the “genealogy” of Rabbinic Authority: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.  They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.”

 Just as a fence around a yard or house protects it, many of the Rabbinic innovations were designed to protect the commandments in the Torah. These developments were not seen as additions or subtractions (prohibited by the Torah in Deuteronomy 4.2 and 13.1), but rather as aids in maintaining the integrity of the mitzvot. I like to think of it with an image from my childhood. Many long driveways were lined with oak trees, and often the oak trees had tiny picket fences around them. A careless driver would break the fence and not the oak tree.

Of course, it is important to remember that the fences are not the oak trees—that the Rabbinic enhancements are not of the same status as the mitzvot themselves. For this distinction, the Talmud speaks of some rules as being d’Oraita, revelatory (from the Torah itself), and others as being d’Rabbanan, innovations of the Rabbis.

Many debates have been conducted over the last 2000 years about building such fences—and how sacrosanct they are once they have been standing for years. As you can imagine, the struggle since the Enlightenment over progressive Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist) has often been concerned with these developments—these fences—that have defined much of our Jewish sensibility.

Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro gives an interesting view of this ancient notion in his 1993 book, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot. He rewords the Avot 1.1 advice as follows: “Make a fence for Torah. Distinguish historical form from timeless Truth; dare to change the first to uphold the second.”

Historical Form? Timeless Truth? What in a tradition that prizes tradition is negotiable? What are reasonable reforms? Under what conditions is reform appropriate—and even authentic? How can one throw out the bath water without injuring the baby?

An example comes in the way that this week’s Torah portion describes a Jewish world very different from our own. This is the Parashah where Jacob leaves his home and journeys to his relatives up in Syria. Falling in love with his cousin, Rachel, he works for seven years to earn the bride price to pay for her hand. When it comes time for the wedding, however, Uncle Laban has other plans. He gives Rachel’s sister Leah to Jacob as a wife, and, in a sequence which begs for explanation, Jacob does not realize that he has wed the wrong sister until the morning after their marital night. The initial Jacob-centric sense of the narrative makes us feel bad for Jacob since he was cheated—and has to work an additional seven years for Rachel, his first choice. However, our main sympathies ought to go to Leah, fraudulently pushed into a marriage where she is never truly loved—and forced to compete with her sister for the affections of their mutual husband.

Fortunately, this kind of marital arrangement is no longer our Jewish way. For one thing, the consent of the bride was mandated in Rabbinic Law. For another thing, there is now an inspection (b’decken) before the ceremony. And, the ancient custom of polygamy was discontinued. It was an interesting Halachic decision. Since the Patriarchs and Kings of Judah and Israel had practiced polygamy, Rabbenu Gershom (960-1040) did not feel it appropriate to forbid it—and thus disrespect the Tradition. So, working with the fence around the Torah concept, he merely constructed a “fence” around the Biblically allowed practice of polygamy by enacting a temporary ban (for 1000 years). This temporary ban seemed permanent, but it so happens that it expired around the year 2000. So, is it still in force? Some continue to follow it as a universally accepted custom. Others say that 1000 years is not limited to 1000 actual years—that the term implies permanence.  

In any event, the point is that the seeds of what we now call egalitarianism and feminism were already beginning to germinate in antiquity. Fairness and respect and compassion and autonomy are timeless truths that militated against customs that once seemed unchangeable. As our religion has developed through the ages, we see a gradual changing of the fences when new or different fencing became necessary. The social forms or mores—historical forms—that once included forced marriage and polygamy were changed as we gradually worked on the timeless truth of respect and autonomy for each individual human being.

This reminds me a Midrash taught by Rabbi Eugene Mihaly of the Hebrew Union College. The text is the story of Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. He is aglow with inspiration and holiness, but the sight of the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf throws him into a fit of rage. He casts the tablets to the ground and shatters them into hundreds of pieces. Other than the obvious anger or a sense that such idolaters do not deserve God’s commandments, Rabbi Mihaly quotes the Midrash and posits a slightly different scenario. “Why did Moses cast the Tablets to the ground?” he asks. “To teach us that, sometimes, in order to save Torah, one must destroy Torah.” That is why, when God refers to the incident of the Tablets “asher shibarta—which you shattered,” we read it as “ashray shibarta—I am happy that you broke them.” Sometimes, in order to save Torah, one must destroy Torah.

As Rabbi Shapiro puts it—and as our Tradition has shown over and over again, making a fence around the Torah can involve distinguishing historical form from timeless Truth, daring to change the first to uphold the second.

The Stories Before Our Story

November 17th: Toldot
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Translation is always an interesting proposition. Just put four or five different translations of the Bible side by side, and you’ll see the curious variations of the traditional text—all of which are correct! For example, Genesis 1:1 can be rendered “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” or “When God began to create the heaven and the earth.” Both are accurate translations, but the difference in philosophical or spiritual implications can be excellent fodder for discussion.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, the translation question comes up immediately. The opening words are “V’eleh tol’dot Yitzchak ben Avraham,” and the traditional English translation, going back to the King James translation of  1611, is “And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son.” This is literally accurate. Eleh means these, and toldot means generations, but is this what the ancients really meant? What follows this introduction is not  a genealogy but rather the story of Isaac’s family. Thus do more modern translators, beginning with the 1962 Jewish Publication Society edition, render it, “This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.”

Of course, the story is not actually the story of Isaac so much as the story of Isaac’s son, Jacob. We start with Isaac and Rebekah and their hope for a child. We continue with the birth of the twins, Jacob and Esau, but everyone else is pretty much a co-star. Jacob has the leading role for the next twelve chapters. (This changes in Genesis 37 when we have “Eleh toldot Ya’akov / These are the generations of Jacob”—which is really the story of Joseph!)

The spiritual point here is that the story of Jacob begins with the words, “This is the story of Isaac.”  Jacob’s origins and connection to the previous generation are thus declared, and a lesson for the nature of individual human identity is thus presented. We are who we are not only because of our own human uniqueness; we are influenced by and are the continuation of those who came before us.

This essential Jewish teaching—and human truth—was brought to mind this last week at the funeral of a long-time member, Henry Hoffman. His two sons spoke at the funeral, and both Ed and Bennett began their reminiscences of their father with memories of other elders who had passed on. Some were members of the family. Others were part of their social circle. All were role models, and the connection was that their beloved father was part of a tradition of caring and responsibility and righteousness. Hank clearly made his own unique contributions to the ongoing lessons of the generations, but it was deeply beautiful to see the context in which Hank’s sons saw their father’s life. He was part of a tradition of menschlichkeit, and he did that tradition proud.

Think about the people who influenced you—who taught you how to be a mensch. There were parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts. There were cousins and neighbors and family friends. There were teachers and rabbis and scout leaders and coaches. Some were better than others, and some, frankly, might have provided examples of how not to behave. However, when we reflect upon the internal voices that remind us of what we should be—noble, responsible, good, compassionate, honest, persistent, patient, appreciative, and reverent, it is profoundly appropriate to realize the chain of tradition that brings these values to us.

When we speak of the line of our tradition, we begin with and mention by name Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah, but the spirit of the text is that this noble and ancient line continues in each and every generation. Just as they are our past, so are we their future. Ours is an historic tradition, and the tug of tradition calls on us to live up to the holy aspirations of our ancient and continuing tradition.

The modern Jewish composer Doug Cotler expressed this sense of continuity in his song, Standing on the Shoulders:

“In the garden there’s a tree
Planted by someone who only imagined me.
What love! What vision!
I marvel at the gift, no fruit could be sweeter than this.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

 As my people went from land to land,
Something passed from hand to hand.
And it isn’t just the words and stories
Of the ancient laws and golden glories.
It’s the way we study the Book we study.
It’s the way we study the way.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

Today my life is full of choice
Because a young man raised his voice,
Because a young girl took a chance.
I am freedom’s inheritance.
Years ago they crossed the sea
And they made a life that’s come to me.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

So in the garden, I’ll plant a seed,
A tree of life for you to read.
The fruit will ripen in the sun.
The words will sound when I am gone.
These are the things I pass along:
The fruit, the Book, and the song.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.”

Our Place

November 10th: Chayeh Sarah
THIS WEEK (AND LAST WEEK) IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Abraham and his family are semi-nomadic shepherds, and the stories of their sojourning—i.e. moving periodically from one camp site to another—mention many places in the ancient Middle East, all the way from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Of particular note in Genesis are their experiences in Shechem, Beth El, Hebron, Moriah/Salem, and Beersheba. As they lead their flocks to different pastures, no place seems particularly permanent. God moves with them, and they call on God wherever they happen to be.

This all changes when Sarah dies, and Abraham wants to own the spot where she will be buried. Though the Lord has given the whole Land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron is Abraham’s first real estate transaction and the first sense of permanent place in the Land. Though Abraham continues sojourning, his permanent place is at the Cave of Machpelah, and he returns (is returned) there when he is gathered to his people. It is the same for Isaac and Rebecca, and for Jacob and Leah. Machpelah in Hebron in Canaan becomes their place.

In last week’s portion, when Abraham discusses with God the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, we have a similar idea as the story’s conclusion. “When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.” (Genesis 18.33) This seems to be a simple notation of movement. Just as Abraham has walked his guests (The Lord and two angels) out along their way, Abraham simply returns to his encampment—his place—after the conversation.

However, Jacob Weiner, our recent Bar Mitzvah, sees in this phrase something more significant, and it is my pleasure to share with you Jacob’s teaching on “And Abraham returned to his place.” The following is from Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah:

“There are three other possible interpretations. The first considers a recent transition in Abraham’s life. Previously, he has had a more compliant attitude. He has agreed with all of God’s decisions, though they were sometimes difficult for him. Now, he has adopted a more realistic attitude. At the time this story takes place, Abraham is still adjusting to his newfound realism, and this is his first time seriously challenging God. It’s a leap for Abraham, and it may be making him a bit uncomfortable. After confronting God, he needs to return to a more comfortable level. In other words, he has to ‘return to his place.’

A second interpretation begins with a problem, a koshi, in the text: Why does Abraham not try to go lower than ten, say five? I have my own Midrash, which is a story meant to resolve such difficulties, to answer this question. Perhaps after God says that he would save for the sake of ten, Abraham is about to ask if God would save for the sake of five. God knows that the answer was no. To avoid any disappointment on Abraham’s part, God says sharply ‘Abraham! Go no further! For if there is not ten there is not hope for Sodom! If there is no holy community, I can do nothing but evacuate the righteous. I will not sweep away the innocent with the guilty; nor will I preserve the myriads of guilty for a handful of innocent. Go no further!’ Abraham is taken aback by this harsh rebuke and backs down immediately – returning to his place.

The last interpretation involves an idea of moral debit. Whenever you do a good act or make a sacrifice for God, you get some moral cash put in your account. Whenever you commit a bad deed, your account is charged. Whenever you need a little help, you can draw on your account. Abraham has accumulated a large sum, most recently through hospitality to the angels and for going through circumcision willingly. Abraham, being the good person that he is, doesn’t use his surplus for himself. Instead, he petitions God for the lives of the Sodomites. However, his supply of moral cash is not unlimited. By the time he gets to ten, he has all but run out of bargaining power, and thus has to back down, and return to his place.

So, which interpretation is correct? In my opinion, the final interpretation - the moral cash - is the most powerful and most true for me. That interpretation teaches us an important lesson. Abraham the prophet, the father of Judaism, chooses to use his leverage with God to try to save those he didn’t even know. He could ask God to double the size of his flocks, and God would do it. But the fact that he chooses to use it for the sake of total strangers who may not even be good people teaches us about Tikkun Olam - fixing the world. Just like Abraham’s charitable use of his moral cash, we too should be charitable: to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to free the captives, to help the helpless. As Abraham is willing to spend his entire supply of leverage with God to give the gift of potential salvation to multiple cities, so too should we give the most we can to help those less fortunate than us.”

Thanks, Jacob. This is a beautiful lesson and one we should all appreciate.

Bartering With The Lord

November 3rd: Vayera
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In the discussion between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, we have one of the most important theological passages in the whole Torah. The conversation takes place just after God and two angels visit Abraham and Sarah and announce that, in a year’s time, Sarah will give birth to a son. As Abraham walks his guests out to the road, God ponders whether or not to discuss the Sodom and Gomorrah situation with Abraham. Thinking that Abraham needs to understand—so that Abraham can teach the rest of the world about God’s justice, the Holy One tells Abraham what is getting ready to happen. Then, Abraham comes forward and says, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of the all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18.23-25)

There should be a lot of tension at this point, while Abraham and we wait for God’s response. Will Abraham’s point stand, or is he utterly wrong about God? Though the Torah never says that God formally agrees, the continuation of the discussion implies that God accepts Abraham’s point: “The Judge of all the earth will deal justly!” Thus does God enter into Abraham’s negotiation about the minimum number of righteous people necessary to save the city.

 If one believes that God wrote or dictated the Torah, then here we have it from the Lord God of all the Universe: God is always just. If one believes that the Torah is the work of human beings, writing in a state of inspiration, then we have the expectation very clearly stated: God is just and fair. In a sense, God has no choice but to be just. Later thinkers may wonder at this understanding of the Divine, but this belief in a just God is a cornerstone of Biblical theology. Indeed, it is against this standard that many theological arguments have been conducted. (See the Biblical Book of Job, Rabbi Isaac Luria’s Kabballah, and Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.)

 The conclusion of the discussion between God and Abraham—after God agrees that, should there be ten righteous people, Sodom will not be destroyed, takes the form of a seemingly innocuous passage. “When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.” (Genesis 18.33) Paired with the introduction to the famous discussion—that Abraham “walks along with God and the angels to see them off,” this would simply mean that Abraham walks back to his tent, perhaps to talk to Sarah about the amazing visit. But, given the depth of Biblical interpretation, could there be a deeper meaning to the phrase, “Abraham returned to his place?”

I have never really thought much about this passage, but Jacob Weiner, our Bar Mitzvah this week, sees in it some very interesting possibilities. I do not want to reveal his Midrashic treatment before he gets to share it at his Bar Mitzvah, but I ask you to think about the question. After such a dramatic, potentially dangerous, and theologically significant encounter with the Lord, what could “Abraham returned to his place” mean? What lessons can it teach us?  Think about it this week, and I’ll share Jacob’s insights in next week’s Torah essay.