This blog is on hiatus January through March 2020
Parashat VaYera begins and ends with ways of seeing the UnSeeable, that is, G*d. The Torah shows us that there are many ways to see. The first opens the parashah and names it:
וירא אליו ה באלוני ממרא
VaYera elav HaShem b’eylonei Mamre
HaShem appeared to (literally, “was seen by”) Abraham at the oak grove at Mamre. (Gen.18.1)
This “seeing”, what religion calls revelation, develops a certain specific type of experience of the holy, signified by the very next verse. Notice that the verb is the same; it is only the conjugation that changes, from “was seen” to “saw”:
וירא והנה שלושה אנשים
VaYar v’hineh shloshah anashim
He saw three people
Generations of commentators puzzled over this juxtaposition. Rashbam (Shlomo ben Meir, Rashi’s grandson) suggested that HaShem appeared to Abraham not directly but via three angels disguised to look like human beings, that conveyed HaShem’s message. This goes well with our received tradition that we are not able to see HaShem and live.
Another interpretation: when he “saw” HaShem, what he was actually seeing was the reflection of the divine image in the three strangers who appeared to him. This explanation goes well with the following story, in which he goes out of his way to welcome the people, making them lunch and giving them a safe place to rest on their journey.
Which one is correct? both are, and neither. According to Jewish tradition, every verse has seventy possible interpretations.
What else is seen in this parashah? The other end of this parashah describes the Akedah, the “binding of Isaac” during which the father nearly sacrifices the son. Oceans of ink have been applied to realms of paper in interpretive struggle with this story, all with unsatisfying results; even when we manage to make some kind of logical sense of the story, it is still horrifying.
Seen through the lens of seeing and being seen, however, it is instructive to note the occurrence of the same verb and to try to understand what might be expressed, or hinted at, from that perspective:
וירא והנה איל אחר נאחז בסבך בקרניו
VaYar v’hineh ayil akhar ne’ekhaz basvakh b’karnarv
He saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns (Gen.22.13)
And thus at the fateful moment Abraham, apparently not content to leave an altar unused even when he heard the voice of HaShem told him to lay off his son, saw a ram that he could offer up in place of the human being.
The end of the Akedah is not often remarked upon, since we’re all too busy reeling from the main event. But note the parallel to the beginning of the parashah:
בהר ה יראה
B’har HaShem Yera’eh
At HaShem’s mountain it shall be seen (Gen.22.14)
At the beginning and at the end of this parashah we have instances of VaYar and VaYera, to see and to be seen. Once at an oak grove, where seeing prompted one human being to offer another water, and more, in the harsh desert environment; and once atop a mountain, where the seeing once again forestalled death.
What is it that ”shall be seen”? Is there something about “seeing G*d” that in some way helps us find our way from death toward life? In this parashah, at least, it seems so.
If to see G*d is to see – to understand, perhaps – life itself, then what can it possibly mean that “no one can see Me and live”? This is what HaShem will tell Moshe, down the road. Jewish mystical speculation offers one thought: that although we long to discover the very heart of existence, it will forever be a mystery to us – and we court our own end when we seek to look behind the veil.
Humility is key to seeing, then. You can’t see it all. But oh, what you will see, when you get a glimpse through the veil of the holy in this life.
This week marks the beginning, again; once again we turn to the opening pages of our Torah and read of the beginning.
Except that we do not. The first words of our Torah are
בראשית ברא אלהים
Bereshit bara Elohim
Which literally means “during the beginning, G*d created…”
And what does that mean? Well, we already know that at the “beginning,” there are already water, the abyss itself, and a divine wind. Beyond that comes midrash, with so many possibilities – we are taught that every verse, every word, indeed every letter of the Torah has seventy different faces, that is to say, different interpretations. Torah is like a prism: “turn it over and over, for everything is reflected in it,” said the Rabbis of the Talmud.
One possible interpretation: during the process of the beginning, the following sub story occurred, and the creation of our reality is then narrated. Another possibility, well known to mystics: with the six upper sefirot, G*d was created. There are sixty-eight more possibilities, at least.
Torah is multivalent; it is an obvious step from there to say that the voice of G*d, or our awareness of holiness, must also, therefore, be multi-valent, since Torah is our primary source of understanding holiness in our lives.
It is less obvious, perhaps, to understand the human part in that glorious diversity of meaning, and the beginning of the book of Genesis is here to remind us. The first human beings are called adam and havah. “Adam” comes from the Hebrew adamah, which literally means that which, or one who, comes from the earth. Havah, from the Hebrew word root for existence, means giver of life.
In the first chapter of the book Bereshit, which we translate Genesis, w are told that both were created, and that in such a way, the Image of G*d came to be in the Creation of G*d. One way of understanding this is to interpret that two people were created, in two different and distinct genders. But another way to understand the verse comes from the well-known midrash that sees that one human being, who carried all the gender markings, was created. The first human was gender fluid, non-binary, and in the words of our tradition, perfect.
The next thing that the creation required was more names, and it’s fascinating to see that the Creator expected the Creation to name itself. That is to say, the animals were given the names that the human chose.
The responsibility of this naming echoes unto our own day. To name is to know; it is also to interpret; it may also be a way of accusing, of oppressing, or of lifting up. To call an animal an elephant is to distinguish it from a giraffe; but it is also a way of telling the hunter where to aim, or the arrogant what to consider less alive than oneself.
Thus we gaze upon and define our world, and each other. This old, old insight from the beginning of our identity myth is still astonishingly relevant. May we recognize our power to name, and its attendant responsibility, even as we recognize our power to create and to destroy. May the creative impulse be stronger.
Shabbat Shuvah is so named because it falls on the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the time when we are urged to Shuvah, “return,” to our best selves. It is also the opening of the Haftarah, which is composed of excerpts of the greatest hits from Rosh HaShanah, Tashlikh, and Yom Kippur.
There is no one word we will hear more than teshuvah during this ten day period, and no concept more difficult. To return means to remember where one was, and memory is an elusive, often traumatized element of our minds. To return means to recognize that there is something of great worth that we’ve left behind somewhere, and that our going forward is actually dependent upon our going back for it – and from that perspective to re-vision our future path, and re-orient ourselves to it.
To return, according to our tradition, is to be able to imagine – and from there begin to see – that
We once knew a great unity, when we were very young.
Then, all being was one seamless, living organism.
We were more than a part of it; we were of it and it was of us.
Then we were born and everything began to fall apart:
Mothers and children, father and mothers, siblings,
lovers, families, villages, nations.
Earliest childhood is living in the unity;
adulthood is surviving the brokenness.
And what has come to be called spiritual maturity
is remembering the ancient unity
and trying to reassemble the shards.*
To do teshuvah is to walk toward wholeness in oneself and with everything else. On this Shabbat of the Days of Awe, may the path toward your wholeness, and healing, be smoother than you realized when you began to walk it.
Shabbat shalom, Shanah 5780 Tovah Tikhateymu!
*Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Five Cities of Refuge, 140
Rosh HaShanah 5780 Akedah D’var Torah: Stop Killing the Future
Have you seen the Greta Thunburg helpline? It’s “for adults angry at a child.” The video I saw begins with a middle-aged white man who calls the helpline and confesses that he’s been screaming at the image of Greta addressing the U.N. Climate Summit.
Over 5000 attacks on Twitter, not to mention on Fox News and other right wing media, have targeted Greta with seriously hateful ad hominem attacks ad absurdum for her strong words declaring that world leaders are doing too little, much too late, to respond to climate change.
What is it about adults who do this? What causes people, old enough to know better, to turn on those who speak truth?
This is not a new problem: the ancient prophets of Israel were shouted down, beaten up and even murdered for predicting that the unethical social behavior would cause the downfall of the society. Greta is not the first to speak out; young climate activists have been organizing for years. Their voices are like those of the ancient prophets, and I marvel again at how the youth of the world speak and act in ways that are true, clarion responses to the world we live in, and suffer in.
I would like to bring this question as a lens with which to consider the Akedah, Rosh HaShanah’s very troubling Torah reading.
For many generations our people, confronting this text, have focused upon the three individual actors in the drama. When Sarah is focused upon, it is by feminists who ask where she was. If Isaac is mentioned, it is to argue over his age, and debate why he is not mentioned at the end of the story. And there are those who say that if this was a test by HaShem, Abraham failed it if he could believe that our G*d would ever command such a horror.
And yet…there are disturbing whispers of something else, something deep and true and horrifying, in old midrashim about this story. Why, after all, were the rabbis of antiquity, whose lives were informed by those midrashim, compelled to designate the Akedah as a Rosh HaShanah reading for the ages?
It’s important to know that in Jewish tradition, a midrash is a text which explores the nuances of a Torah story, often in strikingly profound psychological ways. Some collections of midrashim are two thousand years old; some only a thousand. No matter when it was created, you can depend on a midrash to upend your understanding of a text; it invites you deeper, into meanings that are veiled, and which open up whole new possibilities of hidden truth.
There is one midrash, which scholars believe was partially suppressed already in antiquity, which asserts that Isaac “was bound on the altar…and was reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast on Mount Moriah.”
You might ask why it was suppressed (the answer would seem to be that it contradicts the rest of the tradition, not to mention the Torah itself), but I want to ask something else: why does it exist?
Why, if not to confront us with a deep and disturbing truth? Why, if not to remind us that in ancient days people did kill their children as offerings to their gods, and that today some people do kill their children in offerings to their tortured sense of something inevitable, and that the rest of us come closer than we might imagine to such an unimaginable act – not as aware individuals, perhaps, but nevertheless as part and parcel of a larger social organism that still regularly offers up its children.
Poets have long understood something of this strange and terrifying truth. Consider this:
The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
– Wilfred Owen – 1893-1918
I suggest to you this morning that the truth of the Akedah is that we are a short-sighted, self-centered, possibly outright suicidal species. The least we do is to force our children into compliance with the vision we have for our lives and theirs, be it war, or corporate profit, or some other kind of blind and devastating dead end.
Humanity’s self-destructiveness is insidious. It may be obvious and shocking to us when it happens to those to whom we can relate, but it is also happening on a larger scale.
There are so many examples of the future offered up as a sacrifice to that which is held in awe in the present:
*200,000 youth, mostly of color, enter the criminal justice system each year.
*We’ll never know how many young people have been torn from their parents’ arms – Native American, enslaved African, immigrant single mothers, incarcerated mothers – never to be reunited.
*Right now there are 11,000 children held in camps, more in other facilities throughout the United States.
When it comes to demonstrating what we value, society seems to act as if our future was of no concern to us. Parental leave to care for new babies is too often expensive and difficult to come by. School are as underfunded as if raising and educating children was not a vital activity for the health of our society. And gun control is still considered a bill that can wait, both in our state and in our nation’s capital, while this year alone there were twenty-two school shootings as of July 26.
What kind of species murders its future? Why would Abraham perceive that there was any good reason for him to kill his offspring?
Does Abraham see that Isaac is the future, a future that someday will not include him? Is he trying to kill his own death? In abusing Greta Thunberg and other children who show us clearly our own future, are we doing anything more complicated than simply closing our eyes and ears to what we don’t want to hear – at their expense and, of course, our own?
Perhaps this is the wisdom of the ancients: is this why they mandated that we read this difficult passage every year at a time when we are obligated to consider our acts, and their consequences? Is this why they chose to rub our noses in this horror every year?
So much commentary has been written to try to explain it, perhaps to explain it away. The most compelling for me isn’t an explanation but a sort of insight, in a midrash in which Isaac returns to Sarah and himself explains what happened:
The mother asked, where have you been, my son?
He answered, my father took me.
And if not for the messenger of G*d, kim’at shelo nishkhat.
This is translated as “I was almost slaughtered.” But what it literally means is “a little more and I would not have been slaughtered.”
The vagueness of this grammatical construction is the only hope I have been able to find in this whole horrifying learning. Almost not slaughtered is, as if it were, almost slaughtered.
Children embody the future. In the Talmud they are called neti’ot, saplings. Like young trees, children respond honestly to nurturing, and they’re pretty good at surviving storms, drought, and being transplanted. On some very basic level, we are hard-wired to have them and, on a personal level, to protect them. But right now, the trees that are being destroyed through climate change are not only in the Amazon. Can we find the line between the two meanings of kim’at shelo nishkhat?
It only makes sense to prioritize and invest in our children’s well-being. Nothing else makes sense, if we love them, if we love life, if we love ourselves. What will it take, for each of us who lives in this brutalized society of ours, to get back in touch with the kind of vision that grows love, instead of fear? What will it take for us to say that perhaps this is the way it has been, but it is not the way it will be? What will it take before the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber, and schools get all the funding they need?
May our children help us to envision, in joy and in hope, the future we might share through them, and not just our own death.
 Shibbolei HaLeket, cited in Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial, 35.
 Rashi, parashat Haye Sarah, based on Tanhuma and VaYikrah Rabbah.
I’m so tired of “well this Jewish employee doesn’t do X so it can’t be a Jewish thing.”
– tweeted on Thursday September 26 2019, 138 “likes”
You don’t have to speak Twitter, understand “likes” or use social media at all to feel the frustration that prompted that posting. We Jews, and those who love us and share our lives, are a tiny, highly misunderstood minority in the population of the United States.
Our holy days are not nationally recognized.
Our dietary restrictions are not respected.
Our religious teachings are blurred into a “Judaeo-Christian” ethic.
It’s a lot of pressure. Ever since Jews were invited into the larger society in the Modern Era, we’ve been trying to take our place there as equals – and feeling that we have no choice but to give up our distinctiveness in order to be accepted.
Parashat Nitzavim begins with these words
אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
You stand this day, all of you, before HaShem your G*d,
every person in Israel.
Our tradition, reading closely and lovingly, understands these profound opening words in several ways:
- Nitzavim means to stand firmly, to take a stance, to be rooted in one’s sense of self and conviction. We seek the strength to stand firm in the face of misunderstanding, disrespect, and dismissal of what is important to us as Jews.
I was recently invited to speak at a lunch meeting of a Clackamas County department, as part of its “learning about diversity.” After I explained that Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday night and that I didn’t hold it against my non-Jewish friends when they scheduled a happy hour just then, the director of the diversity program asked if perhaps I needed to be less rigid in my practice.
- Nitzavim means to stand with others; it is a plural form. And so we learn that we stand more firmly when we stand together, holding hands and facing challenges to our identity as a group of supportive companions.
As our Israeli cousins point out, if you want to be understood as a Jew, you should live in Israel, the only place in the world where Jewish practices, holidays and ethics are the norm from which all others diverge.
But we are here, in Exile in the United States – and it has been a pretty comfortable Exile for many years. If only we could come to understand how much our identity depends upon each other even when we haven’t met? I knew a woman who was devastated when her boss called a required all-company meeting for erev Rosh HaShanah. “How could you?” she said to him, “you know I’m Jewish and that it’s important to me.” “But your colleague who’s Jewish told me that it didn’t matter to him!” came the reply.
- In our text, we find ourselves standing nitzavim before HaShem Elohim. It’s interesting to consider that both words for that which is holy are used, both the personal HaShem and the more transcendent Elohim. It is taught that this refers to our inner sense of self and our outer acts.
It may be that some of us are unable to take the day off for Rosh HaShanah, and it may be that some of us don’t feel compelled to do so. Some pressures come from without, and some from within. The real challenge of Shabbat Nitzavim, only one day away from the eve of the New Year of 5780, is, as Hasidic teaching would put it, to find an authentic way to balance your outside and your inside; that which you are compelled to do and that which you choose to do; that which you didn’t mean and that about which you didn’t care.
What choices can you make that allow you to stand with integrity in the sense of who you mean to be, and what you want to stand for, in the world?
And if you’re Jewish and you’re not observing Rosh HaShanah in any way, and some non-Jew is talking with you about it, please do the rest of us the favor to explain. We don’t all have to be walking in lock step, yet if we are able to maintain respect for each other’s paths, we’ll be standing firm wherever our Exile may take us.
Shabbat shalom, Shanah 5780 Tovah Tikateyvu!