Category Archives: Divrei Torah

Va-Yetze 5780: The Brute Strength of Mama’s Boy

Not that there was any serious doubt, but Jacob proves himself to be mama’s boy as soon as he arrives in town. Recall that when Abraham’s servant arrived many years ago, Rebecca jumped into action, drawing water for the ten camels, simultaneously demonstrating strength and compassion. Like mother, like son, Jacob demonstrates strength and compassion when he waters Rachel’s sheep, though he also signals vulnerability when he breaks down and cries before his cousin.

The story is familiar—the shepherds tell Jacob they must wait to uncover the well, since the capstone is too heavy for just a few men. Seeing Rachel approach he is filled with strength and accomplishes the feat alone. There are many word plays that enrich this narrative—Rachel means an ewe; he cares for her sheep, hoping to win her love (whether he succeeds remains a mystery). The words “he watered” (vayashk) and “he kissed” (vayishak) are spelled the same way (וישק), reinforcing the romantic aspect of his animal husbandry. Yet the love here is not only for his newly met cousin. It remains focused on his now distant mother. The psychological drama is intense in this scene; Jacob reconnects with his mother, acting as she acted, returning in her stead to her home, but eager to return to her before too long.

Already in Midrash Bereshit Rabba the sages of Israel added new texture to this narrative. When Jacob removes the stone the text says va’yagal (ויגל) which is different from the form of the verb used just previously, va’yegalalu (ויגללו). The latter form means, “they rolled” the stone, which is what you would expect with an object too heavy to lift, even by a crowd of shepherds. Jacob’s verb seems to mean “he uncovered” which the Midrash compares to the effortless way that a person pulls a cork from a bottle. In other words, Jacob was not only strong, but super-strong. In this he is like Rebecca, who draws hundreds of gallons of water for a train of thirsty camels and then keeps going, helping the servant and then offering him hospitality. She is strong and kind, and so is her son. Continue reading

Dark Comfort: Hayei Sarah 5780

A cloud of loneliness and loss hangs over Parashat Hayei Sarah. The main losses are the deaths of our first matriarch Sarah and our first patriarch Abraham, but even the happier moments are overcast with sorrow. Why, in chapter 24, does Abraham send his servant to find a wife for Isaac? Three reasons immediately come to mind. The first is stated explicitly: Abraham doesn’t trust the Canaanite neighbors (who have just given him grief over the burial plot for Sarah) with his son; implicitly, he doesn’t trust Isaac to make the journey and match by himself; finally, Abraham is too aged to handle the task, or too worried to leave Isaac alone at home, and so he sends a servant to do the deed.

What a difference ten chapters make. Back in Genesis 14 when Abraham learned of the capture of Lot, he wasted no time, leading his servants into battle to rescue his nephew, vanquishing the local warlords almost as an afterthought. Now in chapter 24, Abraham is old, and not yet satisfied with his years. He is sad and uncertain what will become of his son and of God’s promise. Isaac at forty is incapable of handling his own affairs in the manner of his father and his future sons. Sarah is dead; the lamp in her tent is extinguished (according to Midrash Bereshit Rabba). Darkness has fallen on the camp of Abraham, and a palpable depression has settled in.

The servant reaches his destination of Aram Naharayim and the city of Nahor towards night, and causes his camels to kneel outside the city, near the well where the girls gather to draw water for their homes. Usually we skip ahead to the grand entrance of Rebecca, but let’s pause here in the dusty dusk and consider how pathetic the servant must feel. He is a tired traveler at the end of his road, at the end of the day and suddenly faced with the improbability of his task. Not only will it be hard to find Abraham’s family after all these years, but how is he to convince them to send their precious daughter off with a strange servant to start her adventure in the land of Canaan? Continue reading

Dust and Ash: VaYera 5780

“Look who thinks he’s nothing!” That’s the punch line to one of our oldest Jewish jokes—the NY Times claims it’s officially known as Jewish Joke No.73. It isn’t so funny, and I’m not retelling it here, but it does reflect an ancient Jewish conviction: True humility is a significant spiritual accomplishment.

When Abraham accuses God of injustice by planning to wipe out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, this appears to be the height of audacity, of hutzpah. And when God quickly agrees not to destroy the cities if fifty righteous people are found in Sodom, Abraham pauses before pushing further, not to celebrate, but to admit his own inadequacy: “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” That last phrase, וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר  “but dust and ashes” becomes Abraham’s hallmark.

This episode reflects the paradox of Abraham in all of his relationships—with Sarah and Isaac, with Hagar and Ishmael, with Lot, and with God. Abraham can be self-effacing or assertive, generous or selfish. These opposite tendencies co-exist within his heart, making you wonder who Abraham is in the end.  His only self-description is this one—dust and ashes, which is to say an ephemeral presence. As Qohelet says near the end, “And the dust returns to the ground as it was” (12:7). At his moment of greatest power—reversing a divine decision—Abraham recalls his mortality. Continue reading

Chariots of God: Lekh Lekha 5780

Once or twice a year I walk past the statue of Atlas on Fifth Avenue at 51 ST and imagine how it would feel to bear the weight of the whole world in your arms. The thought is absurd, of course, yet sometimes when one is overwhelmed it can feel that way. Many people experience more demands than can be comfortably born, more anxieties than can be soothed, more needs than can be fulfilled. Life is weighty, and there is often no alternative than to stand tall and carry on.

As far as I know Judaism does not have an exact match for this image of Atlas, though the Talmud shares a story of the giant king Og uprooting a mountain to throw onto the people of Israel, only to have it collapse back and crush him (Bavli Brakhot 54b). Rather, the Rabbis give us an image of their greatest heroes bearing not the weight of the world, but the weight of heaven.

At the end of Lekh Lekha God commands Abraham to circumcise himself, his sons, and all the males of his household. Once God finishes speaking with Abraham, it says, “then God rose off of Abraham” (Gen. 17: 22). Something similar is said about Jacob in chapter 35, when God renames him Israel, and then “God rose off of him in the place where God spoke with him” (35:13). In chapter 28:13, during the famous dream, the Torah says that God, “stood on him” (i.e. Jacob). These three verses are read by the rabbis quite literally—God was riding the saints! In Midrash Bereshit Rabba Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai exclaims that the righteous are a chariot for the divine presence. The sense is that God literally descends to the world and rides the righteous while delivering a portentous prophecy to them, and then lifts off them, presumably back to heaven. Continue reading

Heed the Voice of Sarah: Shabbat Noah 5780

The closing lines of Parshat Noah are less dramatic and yet more remarkable than are the opening lines of Lekh Lekha. What possessed Terah and his extended family to depart Ur Chasdim and head toward Canaan? What did his sons think of the move? And what did their wives say? Did they have a say? Next week we will read of God’s sudden command to Abram to get going–but he had already started the journey! Why?

A close reading of Genesis 11:29-31 raises additional questions. Verse 29 tells us that Abram and his brother Nahor married women, Sarai and Milkah respectively. The end of the verse is confusing—we read that Milkah was the daughter of Haran, presumably the deceased third brother mentioned in v.27, making Milkah Nahor’s niece, and now his wife. The verse also mentions a new name—Yiskah, another daughter of Haran. Who was she?

Another odd feature of this passage is the announcement in verse 30 that Sarai was barren, without child, which seems to be a non sequitur before momentous verse 31, which describes the journey of the family from Ur-Kasdim toward Canaan, with a stop in Haran. What was the point of telling us this now? And why did they leave Ur? No explanation is provided, unless Sarai’s barrenness was somehow the cause. Continue reading

Time to Weep, Time to Dance: Sukkot 5780

Enough with all this happiness! The Torah commands, and we dutifully sing, “rejoice on your festival… and be entirely happy” (Deut. 16: 14, 15). The Rabbis explain the original form of rejoicing to be the consumption of the “happy sacrifice” (קרבן שמחה) during Temple times; thereafter everyone should rejoice in their own way—by drinking wine, wearing colorful clothes, giving nuts and popped corn to the kids, and portions of food for the poor—and avoiding mourning during the festive days (b. Pesahim 109a). There’s a rule the masses can embrace!

Could it be that this all amounts to too much levity? This is one way to explain the medieval custom of chanting Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot (or Shmini Atzeret—for a comprehensive discussion of the origins and explanations of this custom, see Rabbi David Golinkin’s 2006 essay on the subject). Among the theories for why this text is read is simply to complete the cycle of five megillot (the other four are better associated with their festive anchors), or because the title “Kohelet” might be associated with the mitzvah of “Hakheil” which was performed on Sukkot, or because of an opaque verse in Kohelet 11:2, “give portions to seven or eight,” which is associated with Sukkot in Bavli Eruvin 40b.

None of these explanations gets to the content of the book of Kohelet. Rabbi Isserles lists the custom without explanation (OH 663:2). However his student Rabbi Mordecai Jaffee offers an explanation in his halakhic volume “Levush.” He says that Sukkot is dedicated to rejoicing, and the book of Kohelet reminds us that true joy comes not from building wealth (“vanities”) but from satisfaction with what God has provided. This explanation matches a certain mode of pious thinking, though it runs counter to the biblical command to rejoice with the harvest, and the Talmud’s suggestions of rejoicing with wine, new clothes and sweet treats for the children. Continue reading

Apologizing and Atoning for the Dead: Yom Kippur 5780

Last week I saw a student near Columbia wearing a T-shirt that said, “Never apologize.” I cringed but did not criticize them directly. Perhaps they meant, never apologize for your feelings, or never apologize for your identity. If so, then ok. But perhaps they meant it pure and simple—never apologize, period. I understand the temptations of such a sentiment, but it is the opposite of what we are trying to convey today, when our liturgy is a repeat cycle of Selihot, expressions of remorse and petitions for forgiveness. How then does one apologize?

This semester I am teaching a course on the laws of prayer, drawing mostly on the great code of Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, and of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the Shulhan Arukh. On Monday we focused on the laws of Yom Kippur in order to prepare for this holiest of days. These codes detail the protocol for confession, whether of the high priest in the Holy of Holies, which we will dwell on during the Avodah service soon, or of simple Jews who have wronged God, or one another. An essential component of the process of restoring one’s relationship is to acknowledge precisely what one has done wrong. To apologize.

Here is the established protocol: If it is another person whom you have wronged, then you must go to them and ask forgiveness. If they refuse to forgive, you go a second time, and then a third time, accompanied by three witnesses in order to publicize both your wrong doing and your sincere regret. If the person who was wronged refuses to forgive, then generally, the person who did the wrong is exonerated. The Talmud says to stop going, lest you wind up bothering the other person, harassing them almost, and thus draw them deeper into conflict and their own sin.

Usually three apologies should suffice. But what if the victim of this wrong has since died? What should you do then? The traditional Jewish answer is a bit unnerving. In such a case we are told to gather a minyan of Jews and go to the cemetery where the wronged person lies buried. Standing at their grave with the minyan, a microcosm of Israel, the person who did wrong confesses their sins in detail, apologizing to the deceased victim, and asking forgiveness. This protocol is explained in the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim (the path of life).[1] According to the commentary Mishnah B’rurah, the person who comes to apologize must walk barefooted to the grave (וצריך ללך לשם יחף), as if to reduce the distance between the living and the dead, the guilty and the innocent. Continue reading

The Pupil of God’s Eye: YK-Ha’azinu 5780

The practice of hagba’ah, the lifting of the Torah scroll, is always dramatic, but especially when one can see unusual features of the scroll from a distance. This is the case with the poem Ha’azinu (Deut. 32: 1-42), which is presented as two narrow columns of parallel verse in phrases of three or four words. Scribes justify these narrow columns, and the visual effect is a pathway through the wilderness on which I imagine walking, bounded by hedges of holy words on either side.

Several of the phrases from this poem have made their way into our liturgy, and one into our halakhic lexicon—the rule that when three people have eaten together then one must “invite” the others to say the blessing after the meal comes from verse three, “when I call out the Name of the Lord, [you, plural] give greatness to our God.”

However, other verses are rather obscure. This year I am drawn to verse ten, which depicts God finding Israel like an infant howling in the wilderness (compare to Ezekiel 16:6 וָאֶעֱבֹ֤ר עָלַ֙יִךְ֙ וָֽאֶרְאֵ֔ךְ מִתְבּוֹסֶ֖סֶת בְּדָמָ֑יִךְ וָאֹ֤מַר לָךְ֙ בְּדָמַ֣יִךְ חֲיִ֔י וָאֹ֥מַר לָ֖ךְ בְּדָמַ֥יִךְ חֲיִֽי׃). Our passage says that God “found [Israel] in a desert region, in an empty howling waste. He engirded him, watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of an eye.”(JPS) The three verbs of the end of the verse are somewhat redundant which, as always, prompts rich rabbinic interpretation. Continue reading

Rosh HaShanah 5780: Digging In Against Anti-Semitism

Anyone here from Kansas? Two weeks ago I made my first trip to Kansas City to give a talk about tzedakah at a beautiful synagogue there. Afterwards I stood in the parking lot, schmoozing with the rabbi about the 2014 attack on their JCC. Three people were murdered that April day by a neo-Nazi Klan member spewing vile anti-Semitic statements. As it happens, all three of his victims were Christian. Two belonged to the massive Methodist Church of the Resurrection, and one to a Catholic church. Yet this was very much an act of anti-Semitic violence.

I asked the rabbi, how has the attack changed your community? In many ways, he said. Look, see the stained-glass windows? They’re coated in bullet proof glass. See here, this is now the only entrance to our building. There are locked gates throughout the building. You met the armed guard when you entered, didn’t you, and of course, there are cameras. Some in the parking lot are high resolution, equipped to read license plates and report any suspicious ones directly to the police department.

That is all impressive, but similar security measures are playing out in synagogues and Jewish schools across the country and world—we are better protected than ever, but we still don’t feel secure. Which would we prefer—bullet proof glass, or better relationships with our neighbors, and a society less saturated with hatred and violence? Continue reading

Standing Together: Nitzavim 5779

One of the greatest privileges and responsibilities of a rabbi is to train candidates for conversion to Judaism. Such people are often spiritual seekers, and their questions challenge teachers whose Jewish identity and practice are well established. Why do you do this? What do you believe? What does this text mean? Will this practice make any difference? Faced with such inquiries, it becomes harder for teachers to treat ritual as habit, and faith as dogma. The questions posed by converts, children, or adults who are first discovering the depths of Judaism are exciting to those of us who teach Torah, forcing us to reexamine our own beliefs and practices.

In a sense, the convert challenges their teacher to detach from group habit and encounter Judaism as an individual standing before God. This is a healthy shift of focus for people who are deeply embedded in community. But the opposite is also true—teachers of Torah must infuse their students with a sense of collective purpose and identity. It is wonderful to be a spiritual seeker, but if one’s journey remains solitary, that is not the Jewish way. Judaism is intended to be communal and cannot be fully practiced all alone. The conversion process therefore includes participation in communal worship, festivals, and meals, as well as learning about Jewish history.

For this reason, the Talmud instructs teachers to ask candidates for conversion why they want to join the Jewish people (BT Yevamot 47a). Don’t you know of our historic struggles? Only when the convert acknowledges the suffering of Israel and states that they are not “worthy” to share in it, are they accepted “immediately” and then taught “some” commandments. The Talmud’s examples of which commandments should be taught to the proselyte are surprising—we teach them about leaving the corners of the field, dropped and forgotten fruits, and tithes for the poor. Not Shabbat, nor kashrut, nor prayer, but tzedakah is the essential commandment for those joining the Jewish people, just as it was for Ruth (see Ruth chapter 2). According to this Talmudic presentation, the key to conversion is neither theology nor ritual, but social solidarity with the Jewish poor. Of course, as Maimonides hastens to add, we do teach them the principles of faith and the essential practices of Judaism, but first comes community (Mishneh Torah, Laws of forbidden relations, 14:1-2). Continue reading

Tithing for Today: Ki Tavo 5779

What do the Torah’s tithes have to do with us? Is there a straight line connecting verses that call for support of the Levite, stranger, widow and orphan to the forms of charity practiced today? Our portion includes an emphatic command not only to mitigate poverty, but also to help the vulnerable achieve satiety: When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield — in the third year, the year of the tithe — and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements (Deut. 26:12). This is a high standard, and quite distant from our current practice, but the Torah insists.

Back in Deuteronomy 14, a chapter focused on permitted and forbidden foods concluded with the command to share food with those most in need. There too the standard was to feed them to satiety, that the Lord will bless you in all your work that you do. This claim is reminiscent of Isaac telling Esau to feed him so that father might bless his first born son  (Gen. 27:4). Here too food is a pathway to blessing, but instead of “feeding” God at the altar, we are asked to feed the poor and vulnerable. Does this command apply only to field crops, or does it also cover salaries and capital gains? Continue reading

Perfect and Whole in a Broken World Shoftim 5779

What’s our position on mediums? Years ago in Detroit some in the Jewish community were drawn to a woman who claimed that she could channel conversations with their deceased relatives. Families who with my help had faithfully followed the Jewish traditions of hesped, levaya, shiva and kaddish were, some time later, meeting with her to check in with their loved ones. I get the appeal, but really? Do we resign ourselves to a “whatever works” approach, or speak out against practices that seem misguided?

It goes against the grain of our times to criticize others for their spiritual practices, no matter how strange they may seem. On a pastoral level I would never chastise a bereaved person who sought comfort in this way. And yet, when people would ask me, “Does Judaism approve of this?” I felt bound to answer honestly: Certainly not! Our portion warns the people Israel not to imitate such customs, including consulting ghosts or familiar spirits or inquiring of the dead (Deut. 18: 9-12). Instead, we are commanded, “You must be wholehearted (תמים) with the Lord your God.” (18:13) Continue reading