Reflecting on Rights in Elul

For today, Va-Yeishev, Genesis 37:1 - 40:23 - the beginnings of the stories of Joseph, and some other stories about Jacob's household.

The story of Tamar is here, a wife of two sons of Judah who don't provide her offspring. When Judah shirks his obligations to her, she tricks him into doing the right thing.

This story, a triumph of a woman for justice over a society that tends to ignore women, reminds us that the fight for equality even within Jewish culture has gone on for millennia.

The reflective time of Elul offers us the reminder that we should not take our rights for granted. We should appreciate how far we've come as people and individuals, and how much work we still have ahead of us.

Finding Deeper Meaning in Elul

For today, Va-Yishlach, Genesis 32:4 - 36:43 - Jacob wrestles with a divine being, reconciles with his brother Esau, the story of Dinah, and more.

A strange lone verse appears here, with no introduction or follow-up:
Gen. 35:22 And it was when Jacob was dwelling in that land: Reuben went and lay with Bilka, his father's concubine. And Israel heard - Now the sons of Jacob were twelve...

We hear nothing else about this incident until the end of Jacob's life, when he offers blessings and curses to all of his sons:
Gen. 49:3 Reuben, my firstborn, you, my might, first-fruit of my vigor! Surpassing in loftiness, surpassing in force!
Gen. 49:4 Headlong like water-surpass no more! For when you mounted your father's bed, then you defiled it - he mounted the couch!

Our text omits most of the details of this father and son relationship. Seldom do we know what really goes on between two people.

A message for our month of reflection in Elul - a few words often hint at a bigger story. Hidden beneath the surface we may find much more meaning.

Awe on the horizon - daily parashah for Elul

For today, Va-Yeitzei, Genesis 28:10 - 32:3 - the first parts of Jacob's biography.

From the parashah, Genesis chapter 28:
16 Jacob awoke from his sleep and said: Why, Adonai is in this place, and I, I did not know it!
17 He was awestruck and said: How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than a house of God, and that is the gate of heaven!

Not only does the parashah contain the words that appear on the ark here at Beth El about God being in this place, it also reminds us of the real meaning of the somewhat diminished word "awesome" - as in the awe that is inspired by an experience of the divine.

Elul acts as our prelude to the High Holy Days, or Days of Awe, when we imagine ourselves in the divine presence, feeling awe, and figuring out what our responses to awe should be. Happy reflections everyone!

Shavuah Tov! And Toldot

Shavuah Tov, a good week to all, for today Toldot, Genesis 25:19 - 28:9 - the generations of Isaac. The parashah outlines Isaac's life and the beginnings of the disputes over the inheritance of his birthright.

From the parashah:
Gen. 26:18 Isaac again dug up the wells of water which had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines having stopped them up after Abraham's death, and he called them by the names, the same names by which his father had called them.

In the context of Elul, we know that we cannot rely upon our past achievements and those of our ancestors - we must renew our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual resources.

7th of Elul, Shabbat Shalom, and Parashat Chayei Sarah

For today, Chayei Sarah, the fourth parashah of the Torah, Genesis 23:1 - 25:18, the end of Sarah's life and the winding up of Abraham's life as he secures Isaac's future.

Abraham sends out a servant to find a wife for Isaac. Remembering that some loving strong relationships come from the wisdom of elders, and not merely our own attractions and insights, seems counter-cultural today here in the US.

For Elul, we can see that trusting outside sources for fundamental questions in our lives, submitting to the wisdom of others, may be helpful.

Elul Parasha of the day - Va-Yeira

An Elul thought a day on each of the Torah readings of the year continues - parashat ha-yom!

For today, Va-Yeira, the fourth parashah of the Torah, Genesis 18:1 - 22:24, and the ongoing stories around Abraham.

Sarah gives birth to Isaac, a miraculous child of her senior years, and casts out Hagar, the mother of Ishmael. The Torah itself offers us a better alternative for surrogate motherhood in the Rachel and Leah who offer their handmaids to Jacob and raise their children as their own.

An Elul thought on this: we admit that we can improve situations by rethinking our approaches, and sometimes going back to the drawing board.

Parasha-a-day - Lech L'cha

An Elul thought a day on each of the Torah readings of the year continues - parashat ha-yom!

For today we look at Lech L'cha, the third parashah of the Torah, Genesis 12:1 - 17:27. Here we learn of the life of Abram, who becomes Abraham, the ancestor of the Hebrew people.

One of the many themes of these stories is challenging the divine - Abraham questions God on the fate of the dwellers of Sodom as well as how Abraham will sire a great nation without offspring.

In Elul, we challenge the order of things, we look back over the last year and see what didn't work out well, and try to return to them so as to set them right. We engage with the past to build a better present and future.

Parasha-a-day - Noach

A thought a day on each of the Torah readings of the year continues - parashat ha-yom!

For today, Noach, the second parashah of the Torah - instead of looking at the story of Noah, let's look at the other big occurrence in this section, the Tower of Babel, and God's response to the humans all working together to "build a name for themselves":

Gen. 11:6 Adonai said: Here, (they are) one people with one language for them all, and this is merely the first of their doings - now there will be no barrier for them in all that they scheme to do!
7 Come-now! Let us go down and there let us baffle their language, so that no man will understand the language of his neighbor.
8 So Adonai scattered them from there over the face of all the earth, and they had to stop building the city.
(Translation from the Schocken Bible)

What's the Elul lesson in this teaching? God loves diversity! Progress comes from each of us recognizing our unique assets and challenging ourselves to get along and work together despite our differences.

Elul Torah Review - Parasha a day - Bereisheet

A thought a day on each of the Torah readings of the year for Elul and the High Holy Days culminating around Simchat Torah - I might actually get through all the parshiot!

For today, Bereisheet, the first parashah of the Torah - and filled with easy wisdom, like don't get so filled with jealous anger that we kill our brothers. Here's God's warning to Cain from Genesis, Chapter 4:

Gen. 4:7 Is it not thus: If you intend good, bear-it-aloft, but if you do not intend good, at the entrance is sin, a crouching-demon, toward you his lust - but you can rule over him. (Translation from Schocken Bible)

Lesson for Elul for today - anger and bad intentions are part of us, let us try to accept them without guilt, and rule over them. The path to bad actions is paved with allowing our destructive tendencies to rule us.

Hoarding in Torah and at Trader Joe's

This week's Torah reading, the parasha (weekly section) called B'ha'alotecha, includes this quote from Numbers:

11:32 The people arose all that day and all night, and all the morrow day, gathering the quail, the least gathered ten homers. They spread them, spread them out, all around the camp. 33 The meat was still between their teeth - (the supply) not yet exhausted, when the anger of Adonai flared up among the people, and YHWH struck down among the people an exceedingly great striking. 34 So they called the name of that place Kivrot Ha-Taava/Burial-places of the Craving, for there they buried the people who had-the-craving.

I wonder if the hoarding of Trader Joe's pareve chocolate chips, (see the WSJ article here) may remind us that a Jewish observance that lends itself to such behavior might create a situation that the system of commandments in the Torah was originally designed to avoid.

Wisdom from Proverbs Chapter 2

A little quote from Proverbs (2:9-13) thanks to Rami Shapiro's beautiful translation (p. 32):

When wisdom is embraced, righteousness, justice and fairness are known;
all paths are illumined and you need fear no detour.
When wisdom enters your heart and knowledge your soul.
you will perceive the order of the univese and never despair
You will be rescued from your own dark inclinations,
and not even the cleverest lies will fool you.


Proverbs: The Wisdom of Solomon (Sacred Teachings)

Anti-Intellectualism in the Supreme Court and beyond

So, this is from yesterday: Scalia surprised that he should read

I am not going to get political here, however, I must express a little outrage at the anti-learning culture that seems prevalent in the US today.

As a minor scholar - someone with a college degree and a six-year professional degree that requires reading knowledge of foreign languages and capacities to understand and teach complex ideas - I find it outrageous that a person given a lifetime position as one of the nine top legal scholars in the land could think it remotely acceptable to not be fully versed in a law upon which he will rule.

This, along with criticisms levied towards people who know foreign languages like French, and towards others who advocate for people getting college educations, makes me wonder who we want to be as Americans.

Our founders - self-starters, autodidacts, and those who actually went to college - all revered learning and wisdom. We are a nation of innovators in fields of science and learning. We set ourselves apart from the rest of the world by pioneering public education, and this continues to be one of the ways that allows us to not fall into the traps of chronic and systemic poverty. Education and innovation lead to better futures for individuals, communities, countries, and the world.

Do not allow this culture to become our norm. Ignorance is not a virtue. Knowledge and a mind open to others who might know more than us, promotes a society wherein people work towards the best for all. Demand that our leaders know about the world, and demand from ourselves a life dedicated to self-improvement, and the improvement of our communities. Should we settle for less, we will get it.


Parashat Ki Tissa - 5772 - Life is about becoming

The Israelites have just come through their encounter with God at Sinai – perhaps the most amazing communal encounter of the supernatural ever depicted, and they are grumpy. Thus begins the eternal cycle of revelation and evasion – it turns out that maintaining the behavior so clearly required by God is no easy task.

We think that the Israelites of all people should have no excuse for their behavior. They just saw the plagues, the salvation by way of a miracle at the Sea of Reeds, and then a full revelation of God’s splendor at Sinai proper. While they wait for Moses to return, and Rashi explains that they interpret Moses as delaying six hours, or even a day, depending on one’s reading of the text, the Israelites get Aaron to build them the Golden Calf, a more easily engaged image of the divine, and far less demanding.

In this failure to hold out for Moses’ return, however we explain it, we find the Torah offering us a model we can live with – an understanding of the human side of trying to do the right thing. The right thing often emerges as such a simple thing – just look at the Book of Proverbs, which depicts the wise path and the evil path as relatively easy to distinguish from each other. Here is a quote from Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s beautiful translation:

How different it is with wisdom! She lays no snares and has no need to hide, she sings openly in the street... Prov. 1:20-21

We see the way clearly, and yet we stray. We know the right thing to do, it can be so obvious, singing openly in the street, and still we falter. Why?

The Israelites offer us one model – the task can be overwhelming – the clear and obvious miraculous encounter can be intimidating. Living in awe of the universe, in the face of the reality of the enormity of God, can demotivate us. We yearn for a simpler, easier answer, an image of God that we can dance around, one who makes no demands upon us.

Our Jewish year cycle reminds us of this, as we return, literally and through our behavior, over and over again to the High Holy Days in order to re-establish a focus on good behavior. Even our week cycle can offer us help in this. Every Shabbat we can look at our week both with eyes to when we’ve succeeded in being the person we aim to be, and when we have fallen short.

As Jews we embrace the notion that simple teachings often require lots more effort to pursue. We know what we need to do to save the environment, and we do what we can. We know that we need to exercise, and sometimes we do. We know that we need to reach out to each other and our neighbors to transform the world, and sometimes we manage.

Shabbat gives us the option, and the story of the Golden Calf offers us a model, to say, I did well enough this week – more to work on next week. Let us use Shabbat to refine our approaches in anticipation of making things work better next week. Let us embrace ourselves as imperfect and in process, we aim to become better, and are constantly becoming, just like our concept of God, who offers Moses the name, “I will be what I will be.” When we aim to be like God, to be holy, we aim to be becoming, not to be perfect.

Parashat T'rumah - 5772

Last week’s parasha, Mishpatim, ended with Moses’ disappearance into the cloud and fire on the top of Mount Sinai.           

This week we begin abruptly with the words of T’rumah: “Now Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, that they may take me a raised-contribution…” Moses left and immediately God commanded the Israelites to begin giving things for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, God’s portable dwelling place.

Some Jewish commentators note that such a transition helped the Israelites cope with the difficulty of leaving Mount Sinai behind. They had just encountered the miraculous, and then built the means to carry that experience around with them.

We face similar challenges and opportunities all the time – how do we continue the feelings of a peak experience after we’ve finished it? How do we reclaim the sense of something wonderful from our past?

Jewish answers include everything from prayer and meditation that allow us to renew our everyday lives with past wisdom to using the teachings of the past to craft a framework for new meaningful experiences.

May we make our transitions better through memories that inspire holy innovation.

Parashat Toldot - 23 Cheshvan 5772

Torah thought of the day.

Some of our family traditions are worth abandoning. Isaac fears for his life on account of Rebecca’s beauty, something that Abraham his father feared before him, and poses as Rebecca’s brother instead of her husband. While this turns out alright for Isaac, as it had profited his father before him, family traditions of bad behavior should be left behind, not perpetuated.

More on this as we examine traditions of deception in the rest of this week’s reading of Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9. See the full text here.