Monthly Archives: November 2018

What’s fear got to do with it? VaYetze 5779

Could it be that Rabbi Nachman got it wrong when he said, the world is a narrow bridge, and the key is not to be afraid at all? How many times have we sung these words, rocking to and fro, slow and then fast, soft and then loud, calling out encouragement never to be afraid? It feels so right and true, yet did you ever stop to wonder why the “ikar” or most important thing is not to be afraid? After all, “fear of heaven” (or as we prefer to translate, “reverence”) is a cornerstone of Jewish spirituality, a sobering realization of one’s limitations before the Eternal one, a necessary posture of humility before love can flower in the heart.

Fear can be a crippling emotion, yet it plays a positive role at several key points in our portion. When Jacob awakens from his dream, “he was afraid and said,” but in this case, perhaps the better translation really is “he was awed.” At the end of the Torah portion Jacob twice uses a synonym, pahad, which certainly means fear, to describe his father Isaac’s relationship to God. In Chapter 31:42 Jacob says to Laban, “Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac been with me….” A few verses later Jacob makes an oath, swearing “by the Fear of his father Isaac.” This word for fear, pahad, is the same one Rabbi Nahman tells us not to feel. Yet it worked for Isaac—how so? Continue reading


Peace on Earth? Toledot 5779

The story line of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel has moved on to the second, and soon to the third generations, but our portion begins with a curious backwards facing reference that seems entirely redundant: “These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac.” Interpreters have long puzzled over this seemingly pointless verse. We know! Already two weeks ago we got the good news. Even on the verse’s internal level, it is almost ridiculously obvious, like asking who is buried in Grant’s tomb. Isaac is the son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac. Got it—can we move on? Apparently, not yet.

The rabbis discern a hint of anxiety in the Torah’s belaboring of the point. Why emphasize that Abraham was the father of Isaac? Ah yes, there is the matter of this aged and previously infertile couple suddenly having a son. Really? And then there is the suspicious fact pattern of Sarah having spent time with two other men, Pharaoh and Avimelekh. We understand why they want Isaac to be their son, but we also get why that claim might have been viewed with suspicion.

The rabbis felt that such suspicion was reasonable, and further imagined it eating away at Abraham himself, causing him to wonder if he really was the father. In Bavli Bava Metzia 87a, they imagine Isaac’s weaning party, and a thoroughly skeptical gathering of the neighbors—don’t tell me that Sarah was suddenly fertile, they laughed.  And so, a miracle—Sarah took every baby in town and nursed it. OK, so maybe Sarah is still fertile, but look at old Abe! Yes, the rabbis agree, look at Old Abe very closely. The emphatic verse must mean something, and so another miracle: Isaac suddenly became the spitting image of his father. Like father like son—everyone could see the resemblance, and thus were the skeptics shut down. Continue reading

Stronger than Hate: Hayei Sarah 5779

Stronger than HateThe first thing we saw upon landing in Pittsburgh today was the instantly iconic transformation of the Steelers’ logo to integrate a yellow Magen David and the phrase, “Stronger than Hate.” The three diamonds were originally part of the US Steel logo, with yellow for coal, orange for iron ore and blue for steel scrap—the three ingredients of steel—and they represented the great power of an alloy. What a wonderful metaphor for a community that draws strength from its diversity. And what a tikkun, or repair, for the yellow star as a symbol of Jewish otherness, the medieval mark that designated our people for abuse and extermination. The Jewish star, combined with other elements, becomes a symbol of power sufficient to stop even the most lethally armed haters (see interview with creator Tim Hindes for more).

Our JTS delegation came with our own treasured art—dozens of drawings made by the children of Corpus Christi on 121 ST sent as expressions of love and comfort to the Jews of Pittsburgh. These cards will be shared with Jewish day school children in Pittsburgh, creating a network of compassion, an alloy of affiliation, a generation of children taught to value each other in their difference. As one poster put it, “Love thy neighbor—no exceptions.”

This brings us to our portion, Chayei Sarah, and its extended motif of the vulnerabilities of newcomers to town. The theme is announced by Abraham, I am a stranger and a resident among you (גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם). With these words he describes the predicament that his descendants, and all immigrants, have frequently felt in the subsequent millennia. He is in an especially vulnerable state, weeping for his lost life-partner Sarah, and without title to a place for her (and his) dignified burial. With dignity he asserts the significance of residency—I live here, just like you do—and my family has the right to live and to be buried—in this place, just like you. Continue reading