Monthly Archives: October 2017

Lekh Lekha 5778: Listen to Sarah’s Voice

What does Sarah have to say? She and Abraham were introduced at the end of Parashat Noah, and she is a major character in chapters 12-23 of Genesis. But we hear precious little from her. What is she thinking all this time? When her husband takes their family away from not only his homeland, but also hers—does Sarah object or concede? When Abraham suddenly realizes the danger of her beauty and asks of her, “Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you”—does Sarah volunteer for this deception, object to it, or simply keep quiet? In his dreadful speech, Abraham inverts chivalry, asking, or perhaps demanding that his wife endanger herself for his own sake. It works so well, that he does it again, with Abimelekh in Gerar (and it becomes a family tradition with Isaac), emerging each time with wealth and power.

In this terrifying and disturbing story, Sarah’s sexuality is both a threat and a lucrative resource for Abraham, and he skillfully maneuvers the situation for his own benefit. But Sarah is a person, not a property! What is the meaning of her silence? Judy Klitsner (who teaches Bible for JTS RS in our Israel year), discusses this question in her chapter, “Forbidden Fruit and the Quest for Motherhood,” within her book Subversive Sequels. She states, “Sarah’s silence only heightens our discomfort with Abraham’s actions” (138). Abraham uses a pleading tone with Sarah (imri na…) but she is silent. Klitsner writes, “Although Abraham asks for her cooperation in his deception, the expected statement of affirmation does not follow.” Continue reading

Sukkot 5778: Speaking of Joy

The Sefat Emet (R. Judah Aryeh Leib of Gur,1847-1905) offers many gems for deepening our understanding of the festival of Sukkot. He opens one drashah with reference to the “joy of water-drawing” ritual (simhat beit hasho’eivah) which was conducted in the Temple on these days. Mishnah Sukkah (5:1) states that, “one who has not witnessed this ritual has never seen joy in their life.” The Talmud continues with descriptions of the music, and torches, and dancing and acrobatics that accompanied this event. Water would be drawn from the Shiloah spring and carried up to the Temple, then poured onto the altar. Presumably this celebration of water was something akin to a rain dance.

But for Sefat Emet, the “drawing” is actually a spiritual intake—a breathing in of the holy spirit.  Just as God shapes the first human in Genesis and then breathes the breath of life into Adam, so too do we become infused with divine spirit on Sukkot. Rosh HaShanah was the day of new life, and Yom Kippur of atonement and release from our old failures. But Sukkot is a time to infuse our lives with renewal, with meaning, and with joy. “Rejoicing over the house of drawing” refers not only to water, but also to the intake of divine spirit.

Sefat Emet continues that once a person has drawn in the human spirit, they become a נפש חיה, a living being, which is translated into Aramaic by Onkeles as, “a speaking soul.” Just as a child who begins to speak emerges from a state of absorbing information and begins to communicate, so too is Sukkot a time for new life—communicated by speech. When we begin to speak words of Torah, then the divine spirit within us becomes activated. A prophet is primarily a speaker (ניב/נביא), who gives expression to the divine spirit within. Sefat Emet believes that even if we are not prophets, that this expression of spirit in speech is the primary task of Sukkot. Continue reading

Yom Kippur 5778: Who’s in Charge?

An ancient paradox, presented in the name of Rabbi Akiva:

הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה (אבות ג, טו)

All is foreseen; but choice is given. (Avot 3:15)

These four Hebrew words contain the classic conflict between determinism and free will. For millennia, many of the world’s greatest thinkers have struggled to reconcile the sense that we are free to decide how to behave with the obvious influence that external forces have on us. Do we have agency—personal freedom, and therefore responsibility—or is that all an illusion? The debate takes different forms in different contexts but the key question remains the same—who is in charge? Are we the authors of our own stories, or just their most prominent characters?

On this day of Yom Kippur when we deprive ourselves of physical pleasures, devote ourselves to angelic song, and lovingly recall the memory of our deceased relatives—we can imagine ourselves too as a disembodied presence, pure spirit, free from all physical restraints. But of course, we are not disembodied. We are very much alive, with stomachs growling, feet shuffling and minds wandering. And so, the question that I wish to discuss with you on this Day of Atonement is—Are we free to chart a new course for ourselves, or has all been determined for us in advance? Are we indeed like clay in the hands of the potter, or are we ourselves the potters, shaping our own lives? Continue reading