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.

Shabbat Noakh: Sometimes It Floods

Sometimes life comes at you faster than you can thoughtfully respond. In our parashat hashavua one person, Noakh, suddenly discovers that his world is going to end in a great flood of water that will cover the earth as far as he knows it to exist. He builds a giant boat as he is directed by G-d, and he and his family are saved from the death that meets the rest of humankind, and also many animals. Our tradition finds fault with him, based upon a close reading of Genesis 6.9: “Noakh was righteous in his generation.” The Rabbis asked of this verse, what kind of compliment is that? His generation is so wicked that G-d blots them out….They point to Abraham, who, when G-d announced the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, insisted that G-d distinguish between guilty and innocent. Noakh, on the other hand, when news of the flood reaches him, does not ask and does not argue.

But what else is different, if we compare Abraham and Noakh? Abraham is G-d’s chosen, protected and guided toward a blessed future in a land promised to his descendants. Noakh has no such support, at least not as described in the Torah. He lives in a world which is literally going to hell, and he is experiencing the incredible stress of social breakdown, hatred acted upon in ways that empty out all notions of ethics and decency….and he is, after all, only human.

I am in Israel this week, visiting family and in particular meeting my new cousin, Ofri, who was born on Purim. From here the view is strikingly different from that which we experience from our safely distant perspective in the U.S. Here, we heard about Wednesday’s attack in the local hourly news that comes over the radio, and details emerged over the local internet hour by hour. At the same time, Israelis join right now in mourning young people who were taking vacation from their army service, hiking in Nepal, and were killed by a sudden snowstorm and avalanche. And oh, yes, the latest news about the so-called Islamic State conveys information about what is happening not so far from here – although here in the village it is so quiet that it is almost impossible to believe that such upheaval is actually occurring.

Just now the latest news bulletin on the hour came through as we prepare for Shabbat; two young Israeli adults on holiday in Nepal were killed when the bus they were traveling on plunged into a ravine. My cousin Eli got very quiet for a moment, but there was nothing much to say other than what we already know we are thinking: so sad, so very sad. If you had pushed us further, we might have continued with: and so pointless. Oh, and there is news that tension is increasing in Jerusalem: rocks are being thrown, tires and light-rail stations set on fire.

It feels like a flood of terribly bad, sad news, and within it the different kinds of bad news come together in a way that blurs distinctions. Perhaps this is what Noakh was feeling when G-d announced the great flood. Maybe he was so beaten down by one sad experience after another, one horror following upon the next, that in all the attendant stress he simply lost his ability to act according to his highest human potential. It does happen that we can be so brutalized by experience that we are no longer really ourselves.

Whatever we in our faraway quiet America feel justified to judge about life here in Israel, let’s remember to apply the ancient Jewish ethical principle l’khaf zekhut, “benefit of the doubt”. Perhaps people really are doing the best they can in some very stressful, brutalizing circumstances.

Please join me this Shabbat in praying for the peace of Jerusalem, and all places – a Jewish kind of prayer which presupposes action to bring it about.

Shabbat Lekh Lekha: Finding Light in Darkness

One  of the more arresting insights about this week’s parashah is that it describes G-d’s third attempt to create a world.

The first attempt ended in a terrible, world-destroying flood. The second was not as cataclysmic, since G-d had sworn never to do that again, and set a bow in the clouds as a Divine reminder. Yet the second attempt also failed: even as the first humans had transgressed a boundary by reaching for G-dlike knowledge, so the Tower of Babel describes humanity’s naive hubris, displayed in an attempt to build a structure that would reach to G-d’s territory. Heaven, perhaps, or just a sort of safety unknown, and unknowable, to humans.
This third attempt shows us a G-d far less ambitious, a creation with far less impact. Not a world, and not all of humanity – just one person. What a picture: G-d reduced to searching through the world for one person who will listen, and follow.
How many times have you attempted to begin again? how disappointing it is to try once more after a failure! how much less shining the path looks, how much reduced one’s enthusiasm is…..
There is a story of a person who, in her youth, sets out to save the world. After some time and a few setbacks, she realizes that the world is a very big place, and perhaps it’s best to set one’s sights more realistically upon, perhaps, the nation. After a while the complexity of that mission overcomes her, and she begins to see how much work is needed just to lift up her own city. Then, having begun truly to see deeply, she realizes that her own neighborhood needs her attention. Then, of course (you can see it coming) she looks around and notices what needs doing in her own home. Finally, she understands: she has her hands full just to begin with herself. And that is, after all, a whole world, as the Rabbis teach: “one who saves one life, saves an entire [potential] world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.9).
G-d begins again with one person, possibly feeling – let’s just assume that G-d as a Creator, a role model we are meant to emulate, feels – a bit let down, that the Divine creative capacity has been disappointingly reduced. Where’s the special effects?
A great and difficult lesson of Jewish tradition offers you the insight that it is not in turning away from your failure, but in seeking within it, that one finds triumph.
Thus, in the seemingly humble beginnings of one person who listens, and who acts,  an entire people will emerge. The one person is called first Avram, then Avraham, but he calls himself ivri, “the one who crosses over”. Finally, a crossing of boundaries for good. And it only happened because of all those former boundaries that were destroyed.
Many Jewish commentaries on this parashah voice a sense of wonder that Avram is called out of nowhere, for no reason. It is entirely possible that G-d called out to many other people, who did not listen, and who did not respond. In one ancient commentary it is said that G-d’s call to Avram was not simply go forth but go forth, and light the way for Me. In the simple willingness to go forth and try again, you too can light up the world.

Pesakh: You Must Remember This

The following is a teaching of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), author of the Sefat Emet, a book of his insights into the parashat hashavua and also the Jewish holy days. This is an edited paraphrase of one of his Pesakh teachings:
Of Pesakh it says, “this day will be a remembrance for you” (Ex.12.14) and “so that you remember the day you came out of Egypt” (Deut.16.3), and “Keep the [holy days of] matzot” (Ex.12.17). Memory is a point within, one where there is no forgetfulness. It has to be “kept” i.e. guarded lest it flow into the place where forgetting occurs. That is why “keep” and “remember” are said in the same single utterance at Sinai.
Every Pesakh the Jew becomes like a newborn child again, just as we were when we came out of Egypt. The point of remembrance within us is renewed. That primal point within is like matzah, which is just the dough itself, simple, with no fermentation or expansion. On this holiday of matzot the inner point, simple, unchanging, pure, is renewed. We do the work of Pesakh when we fulfill the command “keep the [holy days of] matzot” by taking time to renew the point within, the point of memory. We ask questions of others who remember what we remember, what we need to remember in order to guard that inner flame that keeps and guards us, as we keep and guard it.
It is striking that in this teaching, it is very clear that human free will, and human agency, are vitally important to human wholeness. We are not meant to passively sit back and wait for Divine grace to shower down upon us, nor to spend all day praying for it. Abraham, the quintessential Jew, defines that identity by his act of moving forward into uncharted territory – purposeful movement toward meaning is itself part of the creation of that meaning. During Pesakh we are reminded that in order to become the Jewish People, the communal equivalent of Abraham’s journey had to be repeated. Once again we ventured forth, purposefully moving toward meaning, into an unknown future that we would summon by our own act of moving forward.
As it is said, nishmat adam ner Ad-nai, “the human soul is God’s candle”. As one Rabbinic commentary observed, it is as if God said to Abraham, “go, and light the way before Me.” As we move forward into the future, as we choose the acts that make our lives meaningful, we bring illumination not only to ourselves, but to God as well. We are partners in a Covenant that truly calls upon us to keep and guard the meaning of our people’s memories through our own actions – and the meaning of those memories will stand or fall upon our willingness to take on that responsibility.
May our acts bring the illumination of our memories to bless our shared future.
hag Pesakh sameakh v’kasher, may your Pesakh celebration be joyful and fit.