A New Way to Learn with Rabbi Ariel

Join me here: https://padlet.com/rabbiarielstone/igrn28el4lqefees

I’ll be posting learning material for you to comment on. Feel free to post as well! The site is moderated; we will welcome only Jewish topics, and only kind commentary.

First topic: a kavanah for Hanukkah from medieval Italy. Check it out!

Shabbat VaYishlakh: How To Give

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר עֵשָׂ֖ו יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽךְ׃

Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.”

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֗ב אַל־נָא֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ מִנְחָתִ֖י מִיָּדִ֑י כִּ֣י עַל־כֵּ֞ן רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַתִּרְצֵֽנִי׃

But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. (Bereshit 33.9-10)

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are once again this year occurring unusually close to each other in the Western calendar. Such is the possibility when our lives are regulated by both the solar and lunar calendars, one for our secular lives, and one for our spiritual. As Jews, we know that our Jewish identity is sufficiently robust when we become uncomfortably aware of the clash between the demands of the two. Thus it has ever been for Jews living in Exile, with a foot planted in each of two very different worlds, and the daily demand upon us is to consider what the balance might look like today.

Both of these holidays are also considered to be a time for giving. The excess of Thanksgiving consumption, both of food and “holiday sales” items, years ago led to the response we call “Giving Tuesday”. Hanukkah, on the other hand, is not traditionally focused upon gifts, but upon gratitude for survival against the odds. The gift giving aspect of Hanukkah has arisen in the West as a Jewish syncretism with the Western holiday of Christmas.

Jewish giving at its best is not holiday determined, nor timed for end of the year appeals, although we have learned to adapt as the majority culture around us does. Our parashat hashavua this week offers an interesting meditation upon modes of giving: Jacob gives lavish gifts to his brother Esau after many years of absence. Esau does not need them. Why does Jacob insist? What should Esau do?

The traditional commentaries are interested in Jacob’s motivation. Both Ibn Ezra and Shnei Lukhot haBrit hold that we are to read the Torah exactly as written: 

כִּֽי־אָמַ֞ר אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה פָנָ֗יו בַּמִּנְחָה֙ הַהֹלֶ֣כֶת לְפָנָ֔י וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי׃

For he reasoned, “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.” (Bereshit 32.21)

Jacob here clearly hopes to soften any anger Esau might still feel toward him as a result of Jacob’s betrayal of his brother twenty years before. This is the gift given “with strings.”

We who follow the Jewish tradition of Torah Study consider the ethics of the situation. Here the great Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, guides us clearly and completely with his explanation of the mitzvah of giving found in his Matanot l’Evyonim 10 

  • We are obligated to be careful about the mitzvah of giving, for it is of supreme importance
  • A person is never impoverished through giving
  • Anyone who ignores the chance to give is called a barbarian (b’liya’al – “wicked”, also possibly “one who has no lift upward in the soul”)
  • One who gives with bad grace has destroyed the merit of the gift
  • The reward of one who compels others to give is greater than the one who gives
  • There are eight levels of giving; the highest is to help someone no longer need help
  • One who sustains those that one is not obligated to sustain is considered righteous
  • The poor and vulnerable should be part of our household
  • Those who lie about needing help will not die without coming to that place of need

What is Jacob doing? Probably as much from guilt as from fear, he is trying to achieve balance between what he took from Esau many years ago and what he can give now. Judging him l’khaf zekhut, with the benefit of the doubt, we can see ourselves in a similar emotional situation, perhaps, when we give to those who have less than us.

What is Esau doing? From the evidence of the Torah text itself, he is the soul of graciousness. He does not need to accept, yet the giver needs to give. 

To learn from Esau is to understand that it is sometimes a gift to let someone give you something, even if you do not need it. And to learn from Jacob is to know that sometimes, when gift, giver and given aligns in grace, we are able to see, a bit more clearly, the Face of acceptance, of forgiveness, of love.

The act of balancing is to consider both the needs of the giver and the receiver; both the inner motivation and the communal obligation; and, in our case, both the Western social expectation and the Jewish teaching.

May you learn to give, in this season and every season, in the path of righteousness, and may it lift you up.

Shabbat VaYetze: Whence Antisemitism?

מַאי ״הַר סִינַי״? הַר שֶׁיָּרְדָה שִׂנְאָה לְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם עָלָיו

What is “Sinai”? To indicate that from there, hatred – sin’ah – descended.
– Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 89a

We have been following the story of Ya’akov / Jacob now for long enough to recognize that he is no saint. Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Torah is that it is not a hagiography, not a “Lives of the Saints” describing those humans who seem to be perfect in thought and action, whom we are expected to admire and emulate. No, Ya’akov is all too human, from his name – Hebrew for “heel” – to his youthful willingness to betray his brother.

In the latter part of parashat VaYetze, which we read in this third year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading (an ancient minhag but not widely followed among Jews in the U.S.) we find a different Ya’akov. He is older, he has wives and children to support, and has been working for his father in law Laban for twenty years. It is Laban who has taught Jacob what it means to be on the other side of deceit; Laban who in this parashah speaks of love and concern but only displays such feelings toward himself.

Jacob serves his father in law as shepherd, guarding the flocks and ensuring their welfare. He and Laban enter an agreement that all the speckled and striped sheep will be Jacob’s, as his payment. Laban then immediately removes all such sheep from the flock and has his sons take them far away to graze, thereby cheating Jacob of his pay. Jacob, however, knows a shepherd’s trick, and he causes the offspring of the sheep in his care to bring forth “streaked, spotted and speckled young.” (Bereshit 30.39).

In short, he outsmarts his father in law, who is trying to cheat him. But Laban’s sons find fault with him, in terms that seem to echo much later antisemitic accusations:

וַיִּשְׁמַ֗ע אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֤י בְנֵֽי־לָבָן֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לָקַ֣ח יַעֲקֹ֔ב אֵ֖ת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֑ינוּ וּמֵאֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֔ינוּ עָשָׂ֕ה אֵ֥ת כׇּל־הַכָּבֹ֖ד הַזֶּֽה׃

Now he heard the things that Laban’s sons were saying: “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from that which was our father’s he has built up all this wealth.” (Bereshit 31.1)

Then as now, the smart Jew is not admired, but accused of greed, selfishness, and deceit. 

Like any delusion, antisemitism cannot be reasoned with; it cannot be explained away nor demonstrated to be false. It is a blind lashing out, and all one can do is, as Jacob does, to become aware of it, and to take measures to keep oneself away from it. In Western democracies, we are fortunate to sometimes reach the ear of elected representatives who will further those measures.

Our ancestors do not understand the hatred for our people any more than we do, as our midrash (cited above) reflects. We know that many, many Jews have attempted to leave their Jewish identity behind; ironically, very often their descendants find their way to a shul, seeking the spiritual path their great grandparents gave up in their desperation to find a safe space to live.

The prophet Bil’am spoke words about us that remain true thousands of years later:

הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב

There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations (BaMidbar 23.9)

We can’t guarantee our safety as Jews; ironically, the times we live in have shown us that no one can do that. No one can guarantee peace, freedom, security… our only choice is how we will respond to whatever comes. And here is where being Jewish is a great support: our tradition teaches that every human being is a reflection of the divine image. Every moment of life is a gift. And every day is a blessing if we celebrate it as one.

If you were born into the Jewish people, or if you have found your way into belonging, doesn’t matter one iota to the antisemite. It shouldn’t matter to us either; we need every one of us to hold hands, as we step forward on our Jewish spiritual path together.

This is that path: to respond to baseless hatred by doing random acts of kindness, for it is kindness, along with study and prayer, that uphold the world. Smile at a stranger; give someone flowers for no reason; cultivate patience for others and yourself.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Toldot: What the World Needs Now

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.  – Dr Martin Luther King Jr. (1963)

וַיֶּאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו וְרִבְקָ֖ה אֹהֶ֥בֶת אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃

Isaac loved Esau *כי צידו לפיו and Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25.28)

Commentaries have long noted that it is in the story of Rebekah and Isaac that we first see the word ahavah, love, used in the Torah. Isaac is described as loving Rebekah in the context of their marriage:

וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ

[Isaac] loved [Rebekah] and thus found consolation after [the death of] his mother.

(Genesis 24.67)

We often reflect upon the life of Isaac in the passive, and pathetic, mode: the son of Abraham, who was nearly slaughtered in the violence engendered by his father’s vision. Yet the Torah has more to tell us about this person who is the first to be described as loving.

Where does love come from? What makes us able to love, and what makes us feel that we cannot? To ask these questions of ourselves we must first ask the eternal question of song and story: what is love? The answer, it turns out, depends on the culture. In Jewish tradition, love is not an emotion, caused by something outside of us, and affecting us. Love is, rather, a deliberate act of the intellect. 

Personal:

You shall love HaShem your god with all you have – this verse from the first paragraph of the Shema is not a statement of emotional imperative. It is asking for your loyalty; it is summoning you to be All In on your path of belief and action. 

Social:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself – again, this is not a command about emotion, which is an unknown definition of the term for ancient Israelites. Judaism understands this mitzvah of the Torah to compel us to make sure that whatever we want for our own lives, we make sure is available to those with whom we share our lives and communities. 

Where does this lead us in our attempt to understand the nature of Isaac’s love? First, it is a depiction of a person whose response to unimaginable trauma is to refuse to let it define their life. Isaac is able to love; personally, to act in line with his loyalty, and second, as in Hillel’s famous formulation, to not do to someone else that which was done to him.

Anger is sometimes justified as a way to flush out the emotions from our system. But no one should dwell there. Love is what builds: family, community, and an integrated sense of self.

Isaac shows us that love does not indicate passivity. Love, in the Jewish sense of the term, fills you with power, not weakness; with a sense of purpose, not hopelessness. It is stronger than hate when it is a conscious choice which leads the heart toward generosity and openness. And in these difficult times, it may not save the day, as one more popular slogan puts it, but this choice will save the day – and our lives – from meaningless.

______________________________

*for the grammar and critical edition geeks: this is a variant reading preserved in ancient manuscripts which makes more sense, and indicates that Esau brought his father game to eat.

Shabbat Hayyei Sarah: The Grace to Open

וַיִּקְבְּר֨וּ אֹת֜וֹ יִצְחָ֤ק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל֙ בָּנָ֔יו אֶל־מְעָרַ֖ת הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֑ה אֶל־שְׂדֵ֞ה עֶפְרֹ֤ן בֶּן־צֹ֙חַר֙ הַֽחִתִּ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מַמְרֵֽא

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre. (Bereshit 25.9)

Sooner or later it happens to us: death comes to those who have had a part, for better or for worse, in forming our lives. We are left to ponder what that influence means. It is said that those who have not yet come to closure are the most torn, for now that emotional work is brought into sharp, insistent focus

Consider Isaac and Ishmael, as they are brought together by the death of Abraham. Ishmael, first born, suddenly sent away, through no fault of his own, by his father one day with his mother, abandoned, left to survive – or not. Isaac, nearly murdered by that same father who seems too distracted by his own divine visions to notice what they cost those around him. 

No wonder both sons disappear from the narrative. It is simple self-preservation that causes us to pull back from contact with one who harms us; for some, leaving family of origin behind is the only way to live a life of love and the search for meaning, which is, as Victor Frankl demonstrated, the only real happiness. 

But our Jewish tradition not only teaches that atonement and reconciliation are possible and positive, but also that we are to honor parents. This parashah ends with an amazing tableau: Isaac and Ishmael joining together to bury Abraham. To bury their father is a mark of respect for Abraham; to come together to do so speaks of some kind of reconciliation with all that caused these siblings to be distanced from him, and each other.

And we find that according to Rashi, drawing on the midrashic understanding of what the Torah means in its description of Abraham dying בְּשֵׂיבָ֥ה טוֹבָ֖ה – b’seyvah tovah, “at a good contented age” (Bereshit 25.8) – we are to understand that Ishmael and Isaac were indeed able to come together and to find peace with each other.

How did they find the grace to be reconciled to each other, and to their father, sufficient to draw them together at his grave? This kind of Hesed, although it may alight upon us without warning, does not come without openness. And openness is not easy in this harsh world.

Yet closing off from pain also means closing off from joy. It’s the same door. So how are we to find our way forward on the spiritual journey of a lifetime, and go on past that which hurts?

A Hasidic parable compares our emotional pain to falling in a mud puddle. It makes sense to get up, get cleaned off, and avoid that spot again. Similarly, we must move away from the pain, do what it takes to heal from it, and move on. To revisit the pain, through anger or other emotional ego traps of the yetzer hara’, is nothing less than jumping back into the mud. It makes no sense, and it does not bring joy.

Jewish ethical teaching does not tell us to forgive a bad parent. Forgiving and forgetting, however, are two different things. We are to learn from that which hurts us, yes; but to let that define our lives is to close the door to all that life might mean, and bring.

Ishmael and Isaac demonstrate for us that gestures of honor and respect are still possible. Is it because they are treating Abraham as they wish to be treated by their children? Standing there together, they refuse to let their father’s acts define their relationship and their lives. It is telling, though no midrash (that I could find) notes it, that they bury their father in the cave of Makhpelah, עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מַמְרֵֽא – al p’nei Mamre, “facing Mamre.” Mamre is closely associated with their mom, and with the divine feminine. In so doing they are, perhaps, offering us a consolation:

שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֗וֹת לְדָ֫וִ֥ד הֹ’ 

לֹא־גָבַ֣הּ לִ֭בִּי וְלֹא־רָמ֣וּ עֵינַ֑י 

וְלֹֽא־הִלַּ֓כְתִּי  בִּגְדֹל֖וֹת 

וּבְנִפְלָא֣וֹת מִמֶּֽנִּי

A song of ascents, of David.

O HaShem, my heart is not proud

nor my eyes patronizing;

I do not aspire to great things

or to what is beyond me

אִם־לֹ֤א שִׁוִּ֨יתִי  וְדוֹמַ֗מְתִּי נַ֫פְשִׁ֥י 

כְּ֭גָמֻל עֲלֵ֣י אִמּ֑וֹ כַּגָּמֻ֖ל עָלַ֣י נַפְשִֽׁי

but I have learned to be content

like a child with its mother;

like a small child I seem to myself.

– Psalm 131.1-2

It is the child in us that is badly hurt by life, and the hurt of those who are the caregivers meant to nurture and protect us is profound. Yet we mature, and we learn, and we grow. 

Whether it was a parent who first destroyed trust, or a loved partner, or a trusted friend or mentor who betrayed us, Jewish tradition urges us: don’t let that define you. Ishmael and Isaac challenge you: don’t even let that define the relationship. 

Explore your capacity for openness despite everything. Join hands with others in Torah learning through the pain; avail yourself of thousands of years of human struggle and painful triumph over it. You’ll find you’re not alone. You’ll find others struggling, and growing, and learning the Hesed that we cannot earn, but when we are able to be open, alights, in a blessed moment, upon even our darkest moments.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat No’akh: There’s Still Time

What caused the destruction of all that lived upon the earth? The Torah describes the divine thought process:

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

The earth became corrupt before G*d; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

When G*d saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth,

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

G*d said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Bereshit 6.11-13)

Comparisons with other ancient literature show a common thread in the Flood story: something more powerful than humans reacts to human evil.

What was the evil that was so great that it caused the destruction of the world? Jewish commentaries focus upon the word in our parashah, חמס – hamas, “lawlessness.” In modern Hebrew the definition is

Violence, injustice, oppression, wrong, cruelty, injury

The term appears in the Torah in contexts that show that the behavior is sociopathic:

“Malicious witness” – Shemot 23.1

“Testify falsely” – Devarim 19.16

Jacob’s deathbed curse of Shimon and Levi: their tools are tools of hamas (Bereshit 49.5)

These ancient witnesses to the breakdown of human relationships and the ensuing world-destroying horror shine a truth upon all of us. In the words of Thursday’s bar mitzvah, Alexandre Leikam, the world was destroyed because human beings did not work together in community for good.

The world was destroyed by hamas. Violence, injustice, oppression, wrong, cruelty, and injury committed by people like you and me. It will be destroyed again by you and me if we do not learn the lesson that hamas is not demonic, but in our hands to do or to not do.

It’s easy to see this in the Climate Emergency activists, led by young people demanding the hope of their future from corporations that maximize profit at the expense of all life. We can see it in the effects of social breakdown that cause suffering and death to the vulnerable, whether they die of cold in a tent or of a policeman’s gun. 

It’s harder to see our own part in either the evil or the good. For that we have to go back to the Torah and look for our own reflection. 

What is it to testify falsely? We can see it in the Torah’s prescribed remedy: no one is convicted on the basis of one witness. There must be two – and they must speak openly. No anonymous complaints are given credence.

What is it to witness maliciously? Maimonides supplies the answer: lashon hara’, speaking negatively of another person. 

This does not mean that we are not to denounce wrongdoing. It does mean that every time we speak up to criticize, we must balance the mitzvah of naming hamas with the mitzvah of “love the other as you love yourself,” which means that you should call out someone else as you yourself would appreciate being notified that you’ve crossed the line of social decency.

What destroys the world? Disconnect between you and me, the kind that allows you to complain about me, or me about you, without ever feeling the need to actually talk together to repair our relationship. 

According to our Jewish ethical tradition, the doorway into the opportunity to repent our evil that opened at Yom Kippur does not close until Hanukkah. On this Shabbat No’akh, consider not the evil corporations but the casual hamas of our days, and seek to rid yourself of it. Stop expecting the worst of others; stop carping; start loving. The world depends upon it.

Shabbat Bereshit: The Fate of the Earth

The curse of farming, or, not all who wander are wrong

On this Shabbat we begin all over again with Bereshit, a recounting of the ancient legends our people  knew about how human life began. 

Interestingly, some of the first stories make no sense to us. We are mystified by HaShem’s choice of Abel’s offering over Cain’s. For that matter, why is it such a big deal if we eat of a tree of knowledge of good and evil? Aren’t we supposed to know the difference, and isn’t that distinguishing at the heart of our Jewish ethics?

Comparisons to other origin stories of the ancient Near East shed some light, sometimes. Just as our creation myth depicts a divinity creating the world out of an abyss of water and darkness, others local goddesses and gods create the world out of something – for instance, the origin myth of Ugarit details the murder of the Mother Goddess by her son, who fashions mountains from her breasts, and the sea from her tears. 

Where reason ends, mysticism and midrash sometimes find a deeper sense of meaning. Based on a midrashic understanding, the great Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague (mistakenly considered the creator of the golem) suggested that human beings were meant to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, because until we sinned – by doing so, against HaShem’s edict – we could not know what good and evil are. 

One of the mysteries we confront in this week’s parashah is this: why is farming a curse? We see it expressed three times, once in the punishment HaShem ordains for eating of the tree in Eden:

וְק֥וֹץ וְדַרְדַּ֖ר תַּצְמִ֣יחַֽ לָ֑ךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ אֶת־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃

Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you, 

yet your food shall be the grasses of the field

בְּזֵעַ֤ת אַפֶּ֙יךָ֙ תֹּ֣אכַל לֶ֔חֶם עַ֤ד שֽׁוּבְךָ֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה כִּ֥י מִמֶּ֖נָּה לֻקָּ֑חְתָּ כִּֽי־עָפָ֣ר אַ֔תָּה וְאֶל־עָפָ֖ר תָּשֽׁוּב׃

By the sweat of your brow 

Shall you get bread to eat,

Until you return to the ground—

For from it you were taken.

For dust you are,

And to dust you shall return. (Bereshit 3.18-19)*

The second time is at the birth of Noah, whose parents say:

וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֞֠ה יְנַחֲמֵ֤נוּ מִֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֙נוּ֙ וּמֵעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרְרָ֖הּ יְהֹוָֽה׃

This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, 

out of the very soil which HaShem placed under a curse. (Bereshit 5.29)

The third instance is in the very rejection of Cain’s agricultural offering and the acceptance of Abel’s shepherd’s offering. Clearly, farming is a cursed existence – yet our sources do not understand why.

Of all things! – the book Ishmael that I invited you to read during Elul of this past year, as we prepared spiritually for the High Holy Days, offers us an interesting insight. The reason that we do not understand these stories is that by the time that the Torah becomes our sacred text, we have given ourselves entirely over to the existential narrative that our lives are to be based upon farming the soil. 

Of course, this leads to the impossibility of the shemitta year which has now begun; every seventh year we are commanded by Torah to let the land rest. The idea seems unreasonable – in much the same way it seems unreasonable to let ourselves rest every seventh day. 

Is there a correlation between the state of a human body when it is deprived of rest and the state of the earth deprived of rest? What, perhaps, might we have to learn the hard way if we cannot do what we are commanded out of ancient wisdom to do?

If you have not yet had the chance to read Ishmael I still recommend it. Or you can read the archeological studies indicating that the first farmers experienced heightened hardship and lowered life expectancy; and the discovery that a major spiritual gathering site in Turkey was not created after farming reached that region, forcing scholars to re-consider the orthodoxy that civilization is necessarily a by-product of farming.

As we begin again with Bereshit, may we remember that every bit of Torah has seventy different possible interpretations, according to Jewish tradition – and that which we do not yet understand is not necessarily either unreasonable or ignored by those who seek wisdom by which to live. We’ve eaten from that tree, we are what we are, and it’s vital that we use the capacity we have to distinguish good from evil, and truth from myth.

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*I’ve left the text in the original poetic format, to emphasize the antiquity of the passage (Biblical scholarship has established that the poetic passages in the Torah are the most ancient, and most clearly indicative of its original oral transmission.

Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Sukkot: Joy As Defiance

On this Shabbat we have come to the halfway point of the fall Sukkot festival. This time of year invites us to recognize our total dependence upon the fertility of the soil and the luck of the weather for our lives. The lulav and etrog which we wave in the direction of the four winds, the sukkah (ours or someone else’s) in which we are to spend a week of reading, eating and, weather permitting, sleeping, both are designed to bring our attention to the natural world upon which we depend, and which we do not control. We are to celebrate this time as z’man simkhateynu, “the season of our joy,” nevertheless. 

The Torah reading for the Shabbat of Hol HaMo’ed Sukkot (the Intermediate Days of Sukkot) is also about that which we do not control. The experience of Moshe Rabbenu, the ultimate leader of our people, is reduced in this Torah reading to begging HaShem to overlook the wild card in any relationship: the human heart.

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר פָּנַ֥י יֵלֵ֖כוּ וַהֲנִחֹ֥תִי לָֽךְ׃

HaShem said, “If I will go in the lead, will it lighten your burden?”

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֵלָ֑יו אִם־אֵ֤ין פָּנֶ֙יךָ֙ הֹלְכִ֔ים אַֽל־תַּעֲלֵ֖נוּ מִזֶּֽה׃

Moshe said, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place.” 

(Shemot 33.14-15)

There’s a lot of midrash (ancient commentary) on this section of Torah, in which Moshe and HaShem are feeling out the new contours of the relationship between the Chosen People and their Chooser, and HaShem, perhaps daunted, is ready to appoint an angelic emissary as a go between.   

The idea of a go-between is so inviting! We ourselves use it all the time when we choose to bridge uncertainty with a text or email rather than the possible emotional volatility of an uncertain face-to-face. Yet Moshe rejects it, perhaps sensing that it could be the beginning of an uncrossable abyss between us and HaShem.

One of the great learnings emerging from the COVID-19 experience for us is the two-sided sword of distancing. It’s our own version of joy in the midst of an uncertainty we cannot control. Physical distancing is necessary because it could save lives, yet babies who are not held do not thrive. The Zoom screen saves jobs and relationships, yet induces fatigue and frustration because we cannot read body language. Worst of all, physical distancing leads to social distance, and although we can meet people on Zoom we cannot get to know each other.

We cannot control the situation beyond our own decisions within it. We cannot control the feelings of the heart, not even our own. But we can refuse to distance ourselves from joy despite the uncertainty of this fall harvest of ours. Like Moshe, we can insist that we will not leave “this place,” this Sukkot week that insists that we celebrate despite uncertainty, without HaShem in our midst. 

In Jewish tradition, HaShem is with us whenever we are together in meaningful community. Community is the sukkah that is your spiritual home. May it give you the strength you need to choose to celebrate within uncertainty, despite uncertainty, because we need each other.

mo’adim l’simkha, may the Intermediate days of our Festival be joyful!

Shabbat shalom

Shabbat VaYelekh: Beginning the Shemitta Year

On this Shabbat VaYelekh we have come nearly to the end of the Sefer Torah. Most of the parchment is rolled up on one side of the two atzei hayim, the two “trees of life” upon which the scroll is rolled. It’s a lot of parchment; a lot of text, of reading and studying and learning, has brought us to this point.

Every year we reflect upon the entirety of the gift of our Torah at Simkhat Torah, which we will celebrate at the end of Sukkot. But this year, as once every seven years, we also find ourselves marking the ancient cycle of the shemitta year. From time before time until this year, Jews are to observe a cycle of seven. Just as we observe the seventh day, so too do we mark the seventh year. 

By something other than coincidence, then, we find in this week’s parashah:

וַיְצַ֥ו מֹשֶׁ֖ה אוֹתָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֑ר מִקֵּ֣ץ ׀ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֗ים בְּמֹעֵ֛ד שְׁנַ֥ת הַשְּׁמִטָּ֖ה בְּחַ֥ג הַסֻּכּֽוֹת

Moses taught them saying: Every seventh year, the shemitta year, at the Festival of Sukkot,

בְּב֣וֹא כׇל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לֵֽרָאוֹת֙ אֶת־פְּנֵי֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בַּמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְחָ֑ר תִּקְרָ֞א אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את נֶ֥גֶד כׇּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּאׇזְנֵיהֶֽם

when all Israel comes to appear before HaShem Eternity in the chosen place, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. (Devarim 31.10-11)

This year we have just begun, this year of 5782 which is five days old on Shabbat VaYelekh, is a year of remission, a shemitta year. This week’s parashah reminds us: during the week of Sukkot – ten days from now, starting on Monday September 20 – we are to gather, and hear the Teaching, the Torah. I imagine it as a cross between a Shabbat in the Park and a public reading of Ulysses – beloved and somewhat incomprehensible.

At any rate, our lives have changed radically since those ancient days, and Sukkot has paled in significance next to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s too bad, really, because the harvest has not lost its significance; only many of us, distanced by production lines, consumer advertising, and grocery store packaging, have lost our connection to it.

What will the year of shemitta mean to us? The “year of remission,” is the year of forgiving debts, the year of letting the land rest, and the year of contemplating the entirety of the Torah. 

1.  Who owes you? In the spirit of the season in which we find ourselves, Sukkot is a chance to finish the work of Yom Kippur. Does someone owe you an apology, a rectification, a debt? Forgive it.

2.  In the ancient world, land was both the source of sustenance and of inequality. Regardless of the source of your sustenance, if every seven years we are to level the playing field, what can you do to address systemic inequality in your community? How can you take whatever you have in abundance and share it? It may be finances, but in our relationship-starved days, it may also be love.

3. The third mitzvah of the year of Shemitta is the obligation to hear the Teaching. There is an ancient teaching that the entire Torah (which used to be written without spaces between words)  is one long word: the unknown, unpronounceable, ineffable Name of G*d. 

On this Shabbat, as you contemplate all the Teaching that is to come, listen for the bat kol, the still small voice, in your acts of forgiving and leveling. That Name is there in all we do and all we are, when we do it with compassion, in love.

Shabbat VaYeilekh: We Went Forth

By Shir Tikvah Talmidah Hakhamah Emma Lugo

In Vayeilech we find Moshe Rabeinu at the end of his life, and what a long and strange trip it has been.  Our beloved Moses was born into slavery but became the Prince of Egypt by floating down a river, he discovered the truth about who he really was, lived the life of a shepherd in the wilderness, was spoken to by the Divine when he was already into what we might consider middle age, came back to Egypt to lead a revolution that was sealed in a promise from the Divine that she would not abandon her people, split the Red Sea and led the people through 40 years of wandering in the desert, now about to cross over into the promised land but Moses doesn’t get to go.

Instead the Divine has chosen Joshua and the message to Moses is clear.  Your time is up, even though you are bright-eyed you can no longer be active, it is up to the Divine who has made their choice and it will be Joshua, led by the Divine who will follow through on the life work of Moses.

We have been through a moment, both in our community and in the world.  We are in a moment of profound transition both as Jews and as Americans as well as global citizens.  We are standing at that boundary between a planet that we have loved, that has nurtured and sustained us for 10,000 generations and we are stepping into a new reality that has been created by our desire, our greed, our blindness and it doesn’t look so good.

Perhaps that is one of the reminders of Vayeilech, it is a reminder that the Divine is not our Mother.  She is not there to just approvingly nod at all of our misdirections, our evil deeds, our neglect.  The spaces where we collectively and individually have failed to protect our planet and all the precious life forms that exist in her nurturing womb.  If we turn to the idols of greed, of neglect, of obliviousness, when we fail to see the future consequences of our actions today Vayeilech is here to remind us, on this special Shabbat between Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur that Judaism is a religion of doing, it is an action.  We have a ritual that is given to us, a way of understanding the world that was given to us by the redactors of the Torah.  They had an intuitive understanding of human nature and using the tools that they had in their time to create a text that has carried us through the generations.

Moses sings a song, a Shira, but it is not a happy song.  It is a song of divination, an opportunity to look into the future and into the hearts of his people.  Moses has risen from out of the ashes of time to become the blueprint for the Prophet.  He and his brother have transformed the lives of a people by listening to the Divine, understanding the deepest meaning of how they interpreted her will and created the foundation of a text that provides a pathway to justice.  

In verse 20 of Vayeilech the Divine speaks through Moses, “When I bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey . . . they will eat their fill and grow fat, turning to other gods, they will spurn me . . . many evils and troubles will befall them and this poem will confront them as a witness, it will never be lost from their offspring.”  Rabbenu Bahya in his commentary said that this paragraph speaks about the conditions during the first temple, but it could just as easily speak to us about conditions today.  What was it in our national consciousness that allowed us to turn our backs on the progress and vision we have as a fully inclusive country?  Where in our national character, as Americans, did we allow ourselves to tolerate national leaders or a Supreme court that has turned its back on immigrants, on people of color, and on women.  How have we become so filled with the evil inclination that we can tolerate turning citizens into bounty hunters, chasing down women who choose to exercise their fundamental rights to choice?

Where in our past did we lose the connection to that high point in the Civil Rights movement when the Voting Rights Act was passed, resulting in the elections of thousands of African Americans to local, statewide, and national office, culminating in the election of our first black President in 2000.  How did we lose our way to the point that we now have completely gutted the Voting Rights Act and have tolerated legislation passed in states like Georgia which are based on outright lies about election integrity?  Meanwhile, our desperate neighbors to the global south, yearning for freedom looking to that shining light are still trying to cross over into the promise that we have neglected but which they still believe in.

Vayeilech, as well as all of Torah, is a reminder that everything is one, everything is interconnected and the future is not a given.  If we tolerate a nation that grows up on shows like “Cops” and is willing to tolerate an expanded federal and state prison system that has incarcerated millions of black and brown people in the last thirty years mostly for nonviolent drug offenses, if we cannot see the long chain of white supremacy in the emanations of the present, then we will continue to pay the price and the Divine indeed will continue to turn her face from us. 

Rabbenu Bahya, speaking in the commentary reminds us that Moses is looking at the future, he can draw conclusions from Israel’s behavior in his own time that the people will suffer from their inclination to practice idolatry, their sufferings will increase and they will turn away from the Divine.  

This Torah moment, this week when we study Vayeilech on its own separated from her companion Nitzavim, is a powerful moment.  We are right in the midst of the high holy days, the days between Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur when we have the power within us, really that power that we have at any time, but our tradition has given us this ritual to understand that we have the power of transformation within us.  We can change ourselves, we can change the world.  When Moses looked at his life, and when he saw his people, he understood that he had a responsibility to lead his people out of slavery, and led by the Divine, protected and wrapped up in the blessing of her promise he did it.  In our tradition effort and intention is everything,  now is the time to turn away from those chains of the past that have dragged us down and to see the truly revolutionary power of Teshuva to bring us out of the murky spaces of the past into a bright future where we are again standing together in covenant, a kehillah kedosha, a community of transformation and repair.