Shabbat Toldot: Trust, Despite Everything

In parashat Toldot we read of the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob, born to Rebekah and Isaac after years of trying to get pregnant, and much frustration and difficulty. The family that is created when the children are safely born seems to thrive: their parents succeed in helping their boys to find for each a distinct identity. A family of four, well-off and living at a peaceful time – they look as if all is well.
It all falls apart so fast, in a morality play that seems to demonstrate the damage a controlling parent can do to a child – or, perhaps, the way that deception and betrayal can tear even close families apart. At least, they seemed close.
Those who study the human condition, from ancient Rabbis to modern psychologists, remind us that there is much to be learned not from what we experience, but from how we react to our experiences. Faced with a crisis, Rebekah turns to deception; Jacob ignores his misgivings to go along; Isaac, it is suggested, knows what is happening but shrinks from confrontation; and angry Esau, at the short end, snarls and stomps out, threatening murder.
What if someone had simply spoken directly to the crisis? Why was there no trust among this family’s members? Why did everyone assume the worst?
Consider Isaac, neither the creator of his world – Abraham did that – nor really able to control it. Isaac, who was not killed in the Akedah, who survived his parenting and now is to carry forward their vision. Israeli sociologists speak of the “Isaac generation,” that person or generation that comes of age in the shadow of larger-than-life parents. In the early years of the State of Israel, after the heroes of old founded the state, their children had difficulty discerning how they might make their own contribution to the world. The same is true of any of us whose parent is of an outsize fame or reputation; that identity shadows our own, and it may prove difficult to find one’s own sense of identity.
There is an unfortunately significant attribute of the Isaac generation: its vulnerability to disappointment and cynicism. The first generation carries a great and visionary hope, but afterward, the deconstructionist histories are published, and we learn that all those to whom we had looked up and followed are only human – and some, a great deal worse. Sometimes we might find ourselves driven to punish those who disappoint us in ways that seem to reduce them to the kind of shadow some of us may feel we ourselves are.
Most of us have either felt or can easily imagine the enervation of having our early faith in god-like heroes destroyed. It has been suggested that we ourselves – the people of the United States of America – are part of a great Isaac-generation despair that began with the Vietnam War and sharpened with Watergate. Of course, it is also possible to go back much further, to the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, which stained United States society and polity from the beginning.
Jewish tradition offers us a radical teaching in the face of all this demoralization: if you feel betrayed by another person, review your own assumptions. Why is it that you are reacting the way you do? What other choices might you have?
Jewish mysticism teaches that while we may not feel that we can always access a sense of faith – in ourselves, in others, in G*d – we can always act out of trust. Our tradition is full of stories of Jews betrayed by life who, bereft of the feeling of G*d’s presence, insist on it. The Piacezsner Rebbi, who led his people in the dark days of the Warsaw Ghetto, taught that even those who feel no faith can reach up to the ladder between heaven and earth and, by sheer force of will, pull themselves toward G*d, and bring G*d’s presence down to them.
Feeling unhappy, betrayed, misunderstood, disappointed? Reach up and pull heaven down into your heart again. All you need is your yetzer hara’s stubbornness, turned toward the lifeline rather than the pit. Then, judge each other, not from a place of demoralization, but from kindness and empathy, and so fulfill the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
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Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Mourning the Dead

Once again, gun violence leaves us breathless, and leaves some of us dead.
We have reached a point in our nation where, when we see an American flag at half-mast, it is no longer clear to us why. There is so much death around us, so many incidences of murder by gun. And once again this week we are in mourning, this time for the violent deaths of innocent people at prayer, including the very young.
This week our parashat hashavua begins with a death announcement.  Sarah, first matriarch of the Jewish people, is dead. Before we reach the end of this parashah, we will also read of the death of Abraham. The first Jews, gone – and further gone, the sunny vision they had once shared of the life before them. Sarah died in the area of Hebron, and a sensitive reader will note that Abraham is described as “coming to mourn” – the question provoked, of course, is “coming from where?” And indeed, a thread of midrash considers the possibility that Abraham and Sarah had separated; it is suggested that the trauma of the Akedah had caused Sarah to end their relationship.
And here Abraham is now, an old man who has lived to see that his life’s vision is nearly undetectable in his life’s work, one whose best efforts led to rejection by Sarah, the companion of his life, distance from his son Isaac, and the loss of his son Ishma’el along with Hagar, his mother. He is left alone, with only a faithful servant as head of his household. He was called by a sense of the sacred to a new evocation of that sense in his life – but for what? What is he thinking as he travels the distance to Sarah’s deathbed?
It all seems to be for nothing. Here is the difficult and dark place in which we all may find ourselves at some point: what has my life meant? what does it all add up to? Looking back at regrets and mistakes, it is hard not to see them as definitive, and the lasting meaning of a single human life as a laughable concept. We see the violence that takes so many lives and we may entertain despair.
The light of life in twenty-seven human beings was extinguished on November 5 in Sutherland Springs Texas. The number of mass shootings in the United States in 2017 stands today at three hundred and nine. The number of incidents of gun violence in the U.S. in 2017 stands today at 53,038.  The number of deaths stands today at 13,326. (Gun Violence Archive 2017)
What has happened to the vision we thought we shared in this nation of a good place, a place where we might each pursue life, liberty and happiness? or, at least, a place where we would allow each other the space simply to live? …and is there anything, at all, that each of us can do about it?
The Jewish tradition that Sarah and Abraham began says this: each life is worth the life of the whole world; each life matters. Yes, we have lost untold worlds of potential and promise and love. But in each one of us there is a connection to All That Is – and each one of us carries a world of promise and of potential, too.
Never get numb, we say. Bewail the violence and the dead, as Sarah did and as Abraham did; come to mourn, and to consider the way of this world we share. Know that this will not end soon, and take a moment to appreciate that once you did not know this. And keep looking for the mitzvah that needs doing in each moment, for no matter how the storm rages, there is always the need for a quiet hand to reach out to answer a need. That small moment can save our world, even now, even now.

Shabbat Va’Era: How Does G-d Appear To You?

The parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week, begins in an entirely perplexing way:

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה.

G-d spoke to Moses, saying to him: ‘I am YHVH;

ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai but by My name YHVH I was not known to them.” (Exodus 6.2-3)

Now, all it takes is a quick backward glance in the Torah to the stories of G-d interacting with the Patriarchs to see that this declaration is not, exactly, true. The book of Genesis specifically records the Name YHVH in communications between G-d and all three.

So what does it mean to say that G-d was not known by them in the way that Moshe knows G-d? It is easy enough to suggest that each of us knows the sense of a presence of G-d in our lives (or not) in our own way, and so it’s obvious that Moshe, given his special role, would have an entirely different experience of G-d than those who went before him. But there are deeper levels of understanding here.  

In the scholarly discipline of theology this question might be posed as regarding the quality and impact of revelation. Each Patriarch’s experience of G-d is echoed in the later theological insights offered by commentators:

Jacob was the successfully assimilated Jew. He was living far from the Land of Israel and was doing very well – he had become rich, and had wives and children, and no real plans to fulfill the vow he had made as a young man to return home. And then we read: “YHVH said to Jacob, return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you” (31.3).  In response, Jacob packed up his wives, children, a lot of sheep, and other effects, and left the home he had made for his ancestral home.

“They did not know the faithfulness implicit in My Name, since I made them a promise and did not fulfill it” – Rashi (France, 1040-1105). Jacob’s experience of G-d was one in which he could put off fulfilling a promise – or perhaps letting it drop all together. Here is the picture of a distant, or even non-existent, G-d. You can say what you like and not follow up, you can do what you like without worry, because there is no Divine follow-up. Until there is. To his credit, Jacob responded with admirable alacrity when YHVH finally appeared to him in a convincing, commanding way. 

Have you ever known anyone who acted as if no one was looking, and then one day suddenly decided to clean up his act? Now, for the first time, living an ethical life is meaningful in a way that sweeps aside all doubt?

Isaac was in the midst of struggling with neighboring tribes to dig a well that they would not contest, and find room for his family to live and thrive. He dug three wells, one after the next, and each became a source of strife. Finally he moved his tents to the next ridge and then “YHVH appeared to [Isaac] that night and said, “I am the G-d of your father Abraham. Fear not, for I am with you” (26.24). In response, Isaac was able to relax and know that he was home. He built an altar and proclaimed the Name there.

“From this it emerges that the text is a pointer, not to G-d’s Name but to G-d’s meaning” – Isaac ben Moses Arama (Spain, 1420 – Salonika, 1494). Isaac was trying to do the right thing, moving from each well when it was contested, but couldn’t get a break. Similarly, his namesake, Rabbi Isaac Arama, was among the exiles expelled from Spain near the end of his life. We know G-d through the characteristics that affect our lives: those who have good lives know G-d as the Compassionate, those who suffer know G-d as the Stern Judge, and those who are rescued from disaster known G-d as the Protector. 

There are those among us who believe that our experience of G-d defines G-d, a breathtaking inversion of the humility of the Psalmist who asserted: 

David’s Song of Ascent:

O YHVH, my heart is not proud, nor my glance haughty,

I no longer run after that which is beyond me, too wonderful for me

my soul is quiet and still, like a weaned child in mother’s arms;

O Israel, hope in YHVH forever!  (Psalm 131)

In the best-known story of all, a messenger of YHVH calls to Abraham not to slay his son Isaac in the infamous and difficult story of the Akedah, the “binding” (22.11). In gratitude, Abraham sacrifices a ram.

“G-d appeared to the Patriarchs as an expression of the natural order; G-d’s miracles were apparent to them without violating it….[but] the People of Israel [will] know My great Name through which I shall perform wonders for them” – Maimonides (Spain, 1135 – Egypt, 1204). Abraham acted without expecting miracles, and he saw them anyway. 

How does G-d appear to you? On this week in which the idea of revelations of G-d is once again misused to justify the evil men and women choose to do, can you find it in yourself to follow those in our past who taught that appearances may be deceiving, and to assert that there is more that is possible? There is, after all, a new revelation to Moshe, because in this week’s parashah we are offered a new understanding of an inspiration, and support, that will move an empire of hatred, split a sea of doubt, and bring us to a mountain of vision.

Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Is the Torah Misogynistic?

This week’s parashah is called Hayye Sarah, “Life of Sarah”. The name is derived from the first verse of the parashah:

  וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.  “Sarah’s life was 127 years; these were the years of Sarah’s life.” (Gen. 23.1)

This, however, is the beginning of what we would call Sarah’s epitath. In the next verse we are told of her death. In the parashat hashavua called by her name, Sarah does not appear as a living, acting person. She is, however, a powerful memory which shapes the ensuing acts of her husband and son. Sarah is mourned in this parashah, and in this third year of the Triennial Cycle, Abraham’s most trusted servant has gone back to the home country to find the proper wife for their son, Isaac. It sounds like a typical male-centered text, and the story of finding Rebekah is told with, sure enough, permission being granted by the head of the family in order for her to go and marry Isaac.

Modern Jews often struggle with the gifts of our people’s long memory. Among our inheritances is the gendered Torah text, which skews quite clearly male, both in identifying the Divine and in describing the cultural, social and religious practices of the humanity linked with that vision.

I am not saying “cultural, social and religious awareness”, only “practices”. Please note that we have no idea of the extent to which the Torah clearly describes the actual reality of our most ancient ancestors. The Torah transmits the formative narrative of our people, but it does so through the eyes and ears of those who passed the stories on faithfully from generation to generation. The Torah itself hints at this, by using terminology that expresses awareness that the story happened in earlier times, or is in some other way not fully told.

As a female Rabbi I am sometimes asked whether the Torah isn’t just an outdated misogynistic artifact that we must overcome in order for women and men – and all the genders in between the poles – to be treated as equally valuable, equally necessary, equally filled with the Divine. The answer I often offer comes from my teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, who once pointed out to me, many years ago, that rather than be angry at what I knew from the text, it might be advisable to learn more about the text.

That may have been a gentle way to point out to me that I didn’t completely know what I was judging, and he was right. He was also right to challenge me with the following: “Feminists don’t have to find arguments outside the sacred texts in order to rebut them; the texts themselves are diverse enough that you can find whatever you need within them.”

One of our greatest challenges is becoming aware of the assumptions, and baggage, that we bring to Torah. Is there some part of us that wants to stay angry at this central sacred symbol? Do we prefer to stay away from it and the associations we carry? In other words, do you come to Torah only to pick a fight and then walk away satisfied that there is nothing relevant here?

Here’s a case in point. When you look carefully at the story of Rebekah’s engagement to Isaac, you will see that the head of the household which gives permission for her to go is actually female. You can see it in the Hebrew grammar of the text. It seems as if perhaps someone telling the story later, or perhaps the scribe who first wrote it down, must have assumed that the story was meant in a patriarchal context, and so some words were changed. But they weren’t changed thoroughly enough, and you can see the fingerprints of the change all over the story. And then there’s the fact that Rebekah is asked if she agrees to go. She is not sold, or sent away against her will.

And when Rebekah arrives, it is a signal event for the family:

וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק, אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ. “And Isaac was comforted after his mother[’s death].” (Gen. 24.67)

Whatever role Sarah played in this more patriarchal culture than the one she and Abraham came from, she is clearly so central a presence that nothing will be right until there is once again a woman in her place. Attack it as you might, this is not a misogynistic story.

There’s much more just like this in the investigation of this endless book. You’re invited to dive in any time. What you find may dismay and infuriate you at times, but you will also find uplifting courage and kindness – and best of all, you will be challenged to grow.

May Torah always beckon you toward, and support you in becoming, your highest spiritual self.

Shabbat VaYera: How Are Jews To Be in the World?

How are Jews meant to be in the world? The answer suggested by Jewish ethics is that with every step and with every word, we are to seek the presence of G-d. That does not mean that we are to treat the world as a game of hide-and-seek, but rather that we are to consider the impact of every word and act. Will this thing that I am about to say, that I am burning to say, bring the Presence more fully into being? Will this act that I plan to undertake bring more wholeness into my life and that of my family, my friends, my companions in community?

This week we are given a clear message about the intersection of ethical behavior and the Presence of G-d, as our ancestors struggled to understand it.

We have arrived, this week, at the parashat hashavua called VaYera, “[G-d] appeared”. In this first verse and throughout this long parashah, G-d appears several times to different people, in different guises. 

First, to Abraham in the guise of three travelers (or maybe only one of them, the text is obscure).

18.1: “God appeared to him by the scrub oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day”

Second, to Sarah in the guise of an accuser, “outing” her private laughter:

18.15 “Sarah denied it, saying ‘I didn’t laugh’, because she was afraid. But G-d said, ‘you did too laugh’.”

Third, to Abraham in the guise of a king taking counsel with a trusted advisor:

18.17: “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing?”

Fourth, to Avimelekh, king of Gerar, who adds Sarah to his harem after Abraham says that she is his sister (long story):

20.3: “You are going to die, because you have taken a woman who is another man’s wife.”

Fifth, to Abraham, as a friend counsels a man having trouble at home:

21.12: “In all that Sarah tells you, do as she says.”

Sixth, to Hagar as a savior:

21.19: “G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”

Seventh, and finally, as – well, we don’t really know for sure:

22.1: “After all these things, G-d tested Abraham.”

These appearances all have in common an invitation to consider the meaning and ethical impact of one’s acts. The first is the classic story of Jewish hospitality. The second and fourth have to do with honesty, and the third with refraining from hypocrisy. The fifth touches on a Jewish category called shalom bayit, “keeping peace at home”. In the sixth, Hagar is challenged not to give up as long as life remains. 

The seventh appearance of G-d in this parashah introduces the story of the Akedah, the “binding” and near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son and heir. For millennia, Jewish commentators, teachers and scholars have all tried to explain this incident and make it comprehensible. How could G-d command Abraham to “go to the land of Moriah, and take your son, your only one, whom you love, and offer him up as a burnt offering to Me on one of the mountains that I will show you there.” (Gen. 22.2) As has been said by many long before now, this makes no sense. It is also horrifying, of course.

One of the more compelling answers to this question is the one which notes that G-d “tested” Abraham. Pointing out that G-d did not allow the sacrifice to be completed, it has been suggested that the answer is quite simple: Abraham failed the test. The test was knowing when the voice that you are sure is G-d’s is not.

If the idea of “hearing G-d’s voice” is really just another way to say “I feel absolutely certain”, then the true test is knowing when that truth of which you are already certain is no longer true.

Each of the appearances in this parashah ask the protagonist to make a difficult ethical choice. Contrary to what we might assume, the appearance is not a reward for doing the right thing, the appearance is in the quandary itself. 

G-d is present in our difficulties as the strength and vision that allows us to find our way through them. The Divine Presence is not, according to this particular Torah insight, the property of the one who makes the right choice. It is with all of us who realize that before us lies a struggle to discern the ethical path. It is in the seeing, not in someone’s temporary and partial definition of success. It is clearly NOT the property of one who says s/he speaks in the name of G-d, or the secular god of ethics, and then speaks a hurtful, cold, word, or does a cruel act. It is no accident that G-d never again appears to Abraham after this incident.

May the sense of a divine supportive Presence be with you as you do your best to discern the ethical and moral choices of your life, and choose your acts in response.

Shabbat Lekh L’kha: Be Curious, Be Brave

I recently received an email offering new Torah commentaries “for the curious and brave” – a provocative phrase that immediately makes me feel a sense of challenge. After all, I think that our Torah study is already pretty satisfying to the curious, and challenging to the brave. But I’m also excited to check out the new commentaries (see below to see for yourself) to see if there really is something that will open yet another doorway, yet another glorious trove of possible learning – and the implications thereof, which are the best part.

This week’s parashah offers us the classic role model of the curious and brave: Abraham, to whom suddenly G-d appears, with no warning and for no reason that we can discern from the text itself. The first verse of the parashah is this:

א  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.

1 Now G-d said to Abram: ‘Get yourself out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your parents’ house, to the land that I will show you.

Abram (he becomes Abraham later in this parashah) shows both curiosity and bravery in his response: he picks up household and effects, unquestioningly, and goes. He doesn’t ask where to, nor how long, nor in any other way does he demand more information.

Applying the mandate of the curious and brave student, which seems already much less demanding than the qualities of heart and soul required of Abraham, we look more closely for glimmers of meaning.

One of the most interesting aspects of this verse is the strange grammatical construct לך לך – lekh l’kha, which is here translated “get yourself going”, so to speak. But because the grammar is obscure (one can translate these two words, which look alike, as if they are alike: “to you, to you” or “go, go”, or any variation between them) there are other ways to understand it, and the mystics have a wonderful suggestion. “Go to yourself.” Abram is being told that it is precisely by leaving all with which he is familiar that he will come to some new vision in his life, and more, that he will come to himself.

By leaving himself he will come to know himself. And so, we are told, it is with us. By separating from our patterns, our familiar acquaintances, and our expected daily routines, we may hopefully expect, after some explorations without and within, to come full circle, and, as T. S. Eliot said, “know the place for the first time”. This is not a command to leave everything behind forever, only to be willing to allow some distance from our comfortable habits of thought and action in order to let in a bit more light, and to be willing to walk a new path in order to come to understand old familiar realities. What are you entirely sure of, so sure that it is like “country, kindred and parents’ house”? And what might you see if you step away from that fortress of certainty?

As with life, we know that good Torah study requires us to leave adamant conviction at the door and to be willing to entertain the possibility that there exists more wisdom even than we already possess. In this way, humility is a necessary precondition for curiosity, and, interestingly enough, for bravery as well. And the first word of the parashah calls to us that the right time is now, it is always now. Go forth into the world a little bit farther and deeper than you have until now, be curious and be brave, go forth and go to yourself. Perhaps one of the new commentaries below will help!

New JPS Torah Commentaries “for the curious and brave”:

Brave-The Bible’s Many Voices, by Michael Carasik offers a close textual study of the rich variety of literary genres that comprise the Tanakh. Spend a few sessions with each voice: the historical, theological, legal, prophetic, wisdom, women’s, poetic, and foreign. A 24-session syllabus/study guide is available on our website.

Braver-From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends, by Hebrew University professors Yair Zakovich and Avigdor Shinan. This 30-chapter bestseller from Israel will have you rethink the Bible stories you know, and startle you with the ones you don’t!

Braver-The Aura of Torah: A Kabbalistic-Hasidic Commentary to the Weekly Torah Portion, by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Many of these texts have never appeared in English before. The excerpts are brief and the commentary is lucid. These masters provoke a personal encounter with Torah.

Bravest-Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, by Louis Feldman, James Kugel and Lawrence Schiffman and seventy other scholars of Second Temple literature. Become reacquainted with the biblical family you thought you knew through the daring works that were excluded from the Hebrew canon. An 18-session syllabus/study guide is available on our website, along with a sampling of selected texts from this landmark three-volume anthology.

And just now out: The Lost Matriarch: Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash, by Jerry Rabow, a student of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, which is also perfect for adult education and has an accompanying syllabus.