Isaac and Reviving Our Traditions

For the Shabbat of December 2-3, 2016, 3 Kislev 5777

Parashat Toldot

The Book of Genesis, Chapter 25, Verse 19, through Chapter 28, Verse 9

Isaac’s life is the focus of this week’s Torah reading.

Isaac had great success – it says that he “sowed in that land, and reaped in that year a hundred measures” (Genesis 26:12) – and this was the way God blessed him.

Isaac also worked on digging and re-digging the wells that Abraham his father had dug (Genesis 26:18). 

Our scholars use this idea to emphasize the importance of our efforts in every generation. Going down the paths and doing the things that our parents and grandparents did still gives us the chance to do it our own way and make our own personal opportunities for success.

We can say about all that we do. Even something that we have received as a tried and true strategy from the past, we must aim to refresh it and do it in a new and updated manner. Isaac’s success may be tied to his capacity to follow a well-trod trail and still make it his own.

Just because something has worked before, we must reinvent and reinvigorate it as we do it again.

As Jews, and especially as Reform Jews, we embrace the idea that in every generation we can make progress even as we use the methods and ideas that we inherited from our great ancestors.

In this season of well-worn traditions, I hope we can all unite to celebrate the past, and update it as we continue to build a better future together.

Saving the day with creative cuisine

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

This week we continue to read the story of Joseph in the Torah.

Joseph interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh and he predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and then Pharaoh entrusted Joseph with the administration of Egypt’s entire harvest for seven years in order to set aside enough food to survive the famine.

Ignoring the strange question of why Pharaoh would have entrusted such a daunting task to a foreigner recently retrieved from prison, let’s look at a different question: how did Joseph accomplish his assignment from Pharaoh? How did he know how to effectively store harvests for seven years? Even in dry climates like Egypt I imagine that grain and crops would not be easy to store up for that long without them rotting or spoiling or going bad. So what secret did Joseph have to help him achieve this massive endeavor?

Joseph spent his time in prison with a baker and a wine steward. Maybe he learned some tricks of the trade from the two of them. Joseph could have learned how to make couscous, a pasta like substance that once made might be more easily preserved over the long time needed to feed an entire country during seven years of famine. And he could have learned how to brew beer from the wine steward, allowing the storing up of another source of nutrition from excess grain for a long time.

In both cases, he would have stored up knowledge that would allow him to fulfill this difficult task of running an entire empire’s food production and strategies so as to avoid the impact of the famine to come.

May we learn in these difficult times that creative thinking about our seemingly overwhelming problems has always been the hallmark of Jewish, and human, ingenuity. Working together, even discussing each other’s dreams, and then applying our know-how creatively, may be the only way out of our biggest predicaments.

Shabbat Shalom!


This week's Torah reading - Va-Yakheil

Exodus Chapter 37 begins:
“Then Betzalel made the coffer, of acacia wood, two cubits and a half its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height.”

This is the famous Ark of the Covenant, and it, like all the other parts of the Mishkan, our portable Tabernacle, or Temple in a Tent, described in this week’s Torah reading, Va-Yakheil, received incredibly thorough attention to detail.

In the Torah, we are given detailed instructions on buildings, even as we receive far vaguer directions in other areas. We are told about circumcision and its importance, and the details are left to us to work out.

Perhaps we see these differences because our ancestors understood that some things can be controlled, and others cannot. We can describe exactly how to build something, or how to make an offering, and yet the ritual for bringing a child into the world must always be relevant to the baby’s parents and their community. Relevance tends to change over time.

What a piece of wisdom!

When it comes to something that requires details that make a difference - we lay out all the details with exacting precision.

When it comes to the best ways to create family and community, we understand that people are infinitely varied, and our applications of important principles will change over times and circumstances.

Have a great week!

Source of image: http://www.mnartists.org/work.do?rid=303034

Source of image: http://www.mnartists.org/work.do?rid=303034

This Week's Torah Reading - Parashat Va-eira

Stubborn Pharaoh, stiff-necked Israelites - our time as slaves in Egypt ended over the objections of our oppressor and even the Israelites resisted liberation by Moses. Moses was a stranger who emerged from the desert speaking the words of our God who had abandoned us to oppression for centuries.

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), describes all of this drama. The Israelites ignore Moses:
“But they did not listen to Moses, out of shortness of spirit and out of hard servitude.” (Exodus 6:9)
Between God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh being stubborn on his own, the story of the Exodus from Egypt seems focused on basic failures to communicate.

No one escapes these difficulties - to work together is to often face difficulties in understanding and persuading.

I believe that often we lack sympathy because we hesitate to share each other’s stories. When we speak from the heart, we can hear more profoundly. When our hearts are hardened, just as Pharaoh’s was, no amount of persuasion and well-reasoned argument can sway us.

As we approach this new calendar year of 2014, let us aim to share from the stories which form our true fabric, and pause to listen for those stories from each other.

A little bit of silence and a long walk

A piece of commentary from last week…

This week we read the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, I know, again.

Still, it may contain the most important long walk in the entire Torah, if not in our entire tradition.

God sends Abraham on a long walk to bind and, in Abraham’s mind, sacrifice Isaac. Here’s the text from Genesis, Chapter 22, just to refresh our memories:

Gen. 22:2 He said: Pray take your son, your only-one, whom you love, Yitzhak, and go-you-forth to the land of Moriyya/Seeing, and offer him up there as an offering-up upon one of the mountains that I will tell you of.

Gen. 22:3 Avraham started-early in the morning, he saddled his donkey, he took his two serving-lads with him and Yitzhak his son, he split wood for the offering-up and arose and went to the place that God had told him of.

Gen. 22:4 On the third day Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.

Rabbi David Kimchi remarked on this, nearly 700 years ago, that God could have asked Abraham to do this immediately. God doesn’t. God says go on a walk. Think about it, in Rabbi Kimchi’s words, so that he would have three days’ time to build insight for himself on the matter.

That seems pretty reasonable. Most of us take at least that long to make a decision of importance. From relationships, to large purchases, from job changes, to college applications – we spend a lot of time reflecting on what to do in those moments of our lives. The wisdom from the Torah here reminds us that we do well when we do this, especially if we give ourselves the time to take a walk.

On that walk we may find the moments to reflect and to listen. We have to listen to the quieter voices around us and within us. In the words of Hannah Senesh, “the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens,” – we are often too caught up in the noise of the everyday to even notice the thundering of the world beyond our walls.

Our prayers on Shabbat offer us moments to take an inner walk, to find our ways within. These moments of silence that we enter together every week, every time we offer t’fillah, can be that walk. They can be the time to travel deeper, to build upon our insights, to construct new frames of wisdom.

May the silence we find together allow us to walk towards a meaningful Shabbat.

Let us take a few longer moments of silence to deepen the walk into our selves.

 

The action is the reward

This week’s Torah reading from Re’eh seems to offer us a stark vision of reward and punishment, in its opening verses (Deuteronomy 11:26-28):

See, I place before you today a blessing or a curse:
the blessing, that you obey the commandments of Adonai your God
that I command you today,
and the curse, if you do not hearken to the commandments of Adonai your God,
and turn-aside from the way that I command you today,
walking after other gods whom you have not known.

Fundamental Jewish thinking resists this simple idea. We always understood that a mitzvah brings its own reward.

Malbim, a Nineteenth Century commentator, highlighted how the Hebrew in our quote supports this interpretation, and it hinges on the difference between the words “that” with regard to blessings, and “if” with regard to curses:
“the blessing, that you obey”, implying that the very obedience to the Divine commandments constitutes the blessing. Do not imagine that there is any this-worldly reward outside the good deed itself. The parallel is to a doctor that assures a patient that they will be well if when they adhere to a prescribed regimen, otherwise the patient will die. The consequences are inherent in the deed itself.

As Jews we recognize that blessings come as part of doing the right thing. The mitzvah is inherent in creation – the blessing is right in front of us. We only encounter the downside should we turn away from participation in the creation of something better.

(This interpretation can be found in Nehama Leibovitz’ Studies in Devarim-Deuteronomy, pp. 120-123)

A bit of Torah from Friday night, March 29

Counting and Prayer

Psalms 90:12 - “Teach us to count our days rightly...”
Rabbi Everett Gendler reads the verse to teach: “make our days count by saying yes to each one of them.”

The counting of these days between the Second Day of Passover and Shavuot, the counting of the Omer, helps us move from the celebration of freedom, to the recognition of the responsibility of freedom in the declaration of the Torah at Sinai.

Just as we have begun counting days this week, so also we moved from Winter to Summer in our Jewish calendar – prior to Passover we pray for rain, and this Shabbat will be the first one on which we pray for dew.

We are a pragmatic people. Our tradition demands that we do not extend ourselves in prayer for things that are unlikely, or impossible, to happen. So as the seasons change, so too our expectations shift appropriately.

When we pray, we come together for the sake of transforming our selves and each other. Perhaps the prayer for rain or dew reminds us that we should be shifting our concentration from the seasonal activities associated with life before and after Passover. What is different about winter and spring? What changes in our lives occur, and how can we live in greater understanding and acceptance of them, as well as in greater anticipation of them?

I offer that our prayers serve at least two purposes – the meditation that allows us to clarify our intentions and ideas as individuals, and the clarification that strengthens us as a community to pursue our values together. So the change from rain to dew moves us from a winter mindset of conserving our resources, to a summer approach of starting a season of planting and producing. We come together to find the inner strength to help us pursue the goals of the coming season, and gain support from a community of people united in principles that place our communal health and well-being as priorities.

The counting of the Omer helps us with this transition because it gives us a better sense of the days as they go by, giving us moments to pause and see where we are in the change between the seasonal priorities. Keeping track of the days, giving them themes and titles, allows us to slow the merciless march of time to perhaps a slightly more manageable pace, and insert seconds of mindfulness into our days.

May we find the awareness in our prayers to connect our inner resources with our communal values and strengths. May our Shabbat and our Counting give us the opportunities for insight that carry over into the rest of our days of the week.

The use of omnipotence

How powerful is God and how does God use that power?

These questions arise in this week’s Torah reading, Bo, which includes the final plagues and the freeing of the Israelites from Egypt.

God commanded Moses in the opening of the parasha (Exodus Chapter 10, verses 1-2):
“…Come to Pharaoh! For I have made his heart and the heart of his servants heavy-with-stubbornness, in order that I may put these my signs among them
2 and in order that you may recount in the ears of your child and of your child's child how I have been capricious with Egypt, and my signs, which I have placed upon them – that you may know that I am God.“

God’s explicit purpose made life difficult for the Egyptians so that the Israelites would understand the extent of God’s power. God’s power extends beyond physical miracles, God also controls Pharaoh’s heart and mind.

One of our Renaissance scholars from Italy, Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, suggests that God made Pharaoh more stubborn so that other Egyptians would have the opportunity to repent. This reading expands our understanding of God. God now cares for more than the Israelites – God cares for all of creation.

In Sforno’s reading we can bring our ideas of God into the central message of the Exodus, that all peoples deserve consideration, and that we should not oppress others because we were once oppressed.

A Jewish Take on a Superstorm

The world is not fair – while Abraham seems to argue for fairness in the treatment of Sodom and Gemorrah, still Lot needs to flee the disaster with his family. Bad things happen. Storms happen, and people run from storms, stay hunkered down in storms. What separates the fortunate on the Upper West Side of Manhattan from the less fortunate in Staten Island, or in Cuba? As Jews we stand up and argue with the unfairness of the universe and then we put our hearts and souls into reaching out to those in need, those who suffer the worst of the storms. We hurl our anger at the sky, and then bend our minds and backs to the tasks at hand – rebuilding, repairing, and making anew.

We progressive Jews hesitate to use parts of our Torah that vex us, like these verses from Deuteronomy, part of the Sh’ma in other prayer books, and words that we have omitted from ours:
Deut. 11:13 Now it shall be if you hearken, yes, hearken to my commandments that I command you today, to love Adonai your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your being:
14 I will give forth the rain of your land in its due-time, shooting-rain and later-rain; you shall gather in your grain, your new-wine and your shining-oil;
16 Take-you-care, lest your heart be seduced, so that you turn-aside and serve other gods and prostrate yourselves to them,
17 and the anger of Adonai flare up against you so that he shuts up the heavens, and there is no rain, and the earth does not give forth its yield, and you perish quickly from off the good land that Adonai is giving you!

We don’t like these words because they equate good and bad behavior with good and bad natural events. We prefer the perspective from the Book of Job, that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, and we can’t explain it at all.
And yet, is that really the case?

When we act as a community to prevent difficulties – to provide care for those who need it, and food for those who need it – we create a society in which there is less suffering. Our actions do shape our communities – actions and outcomes are connected.
When we work together to build sound foundations, to respect the ecology that provides our resources for food and shelter, we interact with a planet that treats us with some of the respect that we treat it.

We don’t have to look at God as responding to behavior when we recognize that we live in a society and on a planet in which all things are connected. Each of us plays a part in the whole, and we sink or swim together.

Make a home for yourself

God said to Abram: Go-you-forth from your land, from your kindred, from your father's house, to the land that I will let you see. (Genesis 12:1)

This opening verse to this week’s parasha includes the words that the parasha is named for, Lech Lecha, and we translate them above as “Go-you-forth”. We could just also read them as “Go to yourself”.

Journeys to other places often mean more about “finding our selves” than finding a new place. As Abram, not yet Abraham, and his family set out from home to find a new place for themselves we can hear the observation of Paul Monette: “Home is the place you get to, not the place you come from.”*

We descendants of Abraham, we journeyers, we must remember that the transformation we seek by leaving must still be found within us. We may find a home by moving, in that by moving we also change our selves. Just as the Mishnah asks us to “make for ourselves a teacher” (Pirkei Avot 1:6), so we must also make a home for our selves.

*From: Halfway Home, (New York: Crown, 1991) p. 262; Quoted by Caryn Aviv and Karen Erlichman in the collection Torah Queeries, Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, David Shneer (eds.), (New York: NYU Press, 2009), p. 24.

Avoid materialism and avoid idolatry

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day:

Today we look at B'har, Leviticus 25:1 - 26:2 - rules of economic fairness - forgiveness of debts; as well as rules about allowing land to rest on the seventh year. The text sums up the intent of these laws in the final lines which remind the Israelites that they serve God, who freed them from Egypt, and that they should make no idols and observe the Sabbath.

Materialism is a form of idolatry. When we claim to own a thing or a person or the land we allow the ownership to rule us. Giving up on that ownership, making rules about it that are fair, and reminding our selves on a regular basis that all belongs to the universe and not us, frees us from being bound to our possession of things.

Remembering that only the infinite is worthy of worship helps us focus on the values that create a better world. Observing pauses like Shabbat on a weekly basis, and the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, allows us to regain a sense of priorities greater than focus on what we have and don't have.

Everyone Gets Equal Treatment

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day…it's back, after the High Holy Day hiatus.

Today we look at Emor, Leviticus 21:1 - 24:23 - rules about relationships, for priests, including an ostensibly offensive rule for the priesthood, quoted here:

Lev. 21:17 Speak to Aaron, saying: A man of your seed, throughout their generations, who has in him a defect is not to come-near to bring-near the food of his God.

This limits the participation of the Levites to those who are born with no defects whatsoever. A student from our synagogue who only has nine toes read this section for his Bar Mitzvah, and started out understandably outraged.

Reading on, we discovered a way, perhaps to rehabilitate the text, in a small way:

Lev. 21:22 The food-offerings of his God from the holiest holy-portions, or from the holy-portions, he may eat;

Allowing Levites who are prohibited from participating in Levitical work, namely the maintenance of the Temple and the sacrificial system, to nonetheless eat from the food that the Levites receive as their donation shows the inherent concern for fairness even in ancient Israelite society. After all, these disabled Levites were also barred from other employment in the community, just like any other Levite, and so they needed to receive sustenance from somewhere.

While physical limitations may make certain jobs unavailable, no one should be left out of the basic needs of social welfare.

Thank you to Benjamin Meyerson, the Bar Mitzvah student, who helped come up with this insight.

Aim for holiness in the New Year

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at K'doshim, Leviticus 19:1 - 20:27 - the holiness code, a list of behaviors that Jews identify as fulfilling the verse that appears early in this reading:

Lev. 19:2 Speak to the entire community of the Israelites, and say to them: Holy are you to be, for holy am I, Adonai your God!

Jews tend to read this section as describing how God intends us to be holy - namely by adhering to these standards. The verse serves as an introduction to the behaviors and rituals that follow.

This says that holiness is not other-worldly, not some distant divine essence. Rather, to be holy is to be distinct - to separate ourselves by following paths of good actions. To be holy is to distinguish our behavior, just like creating holiness for a time or space is about setting aside that time and space as special and different from other events and locations.

On this Day of Repentance, that starts this evening, let us all try and find some way to distinguish ourselves. May we make this year one where our actions bring holiness into the world.

G'mar Chatimah Tovah - may we all be well-inscribed for the New Year.

Leviticus says nothing about homosexuality

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1 - 18:30 - the offerings required of Aaron, including the one for all of the sins of the Israelites on the Day of Atonement, prohibitions against hunting, and a host of laws about prohibited relationships.

After that long list comes this text, used frequently, often by non-Jews, in current times:

Lev. 18:21 Your seed-offspring you are not to give-over for bringing-across to the Molech, that you not profane the name of your God, I am Adonai!
22 With a male you are not to lie (after the manner of) lying with a woman, it is an abomination!
23 With any animal you are not to give your emission of seed, becoming-impure through it; a woman is not to stand before an animal, mating with it, it is perversion!

Considering that verse 22, the often quoted anti-homosexual prohibition does not come in the area preceding it, about prohibited marriage relations, we can infer that the notion of two men or two women living together and building a family wasn't seen as an option in ancient Israelite society. Furthermore, the placement of this practice in the area of religious and behavioral abominations also places it outside the norms of regular community life.

Since today we see that same-sex families are just as healthy as their heterosexual alternatives, and that supporting people in forming families is one of the main purposes of a religious society that advocates healthy partnered relationships over promiscuity, we can understand this text as prohibiting something else.

Some evidence points to this prohibiting a form of worship where the priest would dress as a woman and have sex with the worshipper. We can certainly see that such a cult of prostitution would be against the ethics of Ancient Israelite society, and would be a much more accurate fit to what this text might prohibit.

As reasonable religions people we should use our reflective time of year as an opportunity to reconcile the principles we aim to live by with how we read our texts as well. Fairness and compassion, as well as the promotion of healthy families, demand that we must be for total inclusion of the diversity of sexual and gender identities.

Bodies are sources of holiness too

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at M'tzorah, Leviticus 14:1 - 15:33 - ritual impurities around mysterious skin conditions (not leprosy, BTW), and ritual impurities around sexual relationships.

What's the deal with the impurities? What kind of superstitious mumbo-jumbo is this?

Let us depart from the judgmental attitude towards cleanliness in English. All of the impurities mentioned in this section, and the procedures around them, could happen to anyone, and do happen to almost everyone - they are normal results of human existence. Impurity is not a critique, but a rhythm to life, living, and the appreciation of our physicality.

How we cycle in and out of different moments in life is worth noting. When we come into contact with the sources of creation via intimacy we ought to take note in some way. Recognizing the sacredness in such acts by washing before and afterward and treating our actions as full of impact seems like a good corrective in a society where all too often sex and sexuality get easily demeaned by disrespectful access and treatment.

We find great meaning in the connection between our bodies and relationships. At this reflective time of year, let us aim for better and more respectful physicality.