Assuming the Worst

Oct 28, 2010 at 9:44 PM

Parashat Chayyei Sarah

Last week’s Torah portion ended with the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. Then immediately following we read about the death of Sarah. Our Sages teach that there is a direct connection between these two events.

The Akeida is often read as concluding successfully. However, what is not often discussed is its immediate affect on Abraham and Isaac. Apparently, the event was so traumatic for both them (in each their own way) that following we read that Abraham returned from the mountain alone (Gen 22:19).

Upon seeing Abraham returning alone, we are taught that Sarah assumed the worst, and died. The Torah states that Sarah was already 127 years old, and the Sages suggest that the thought of losing Isaac was just too much for her. Abraham returned alone with his servants and found his wife dead and mourned for her (Gen 23:2b).

Of course this is speculation, but assuming for a moment it could have happened this way, why did Sarah die?

This question left our Sages scratching their heads. Did Sarah not trust G-d to bring Isaac back? Did she not trust Abraham? Targum Jonathan, an early Aramaic paraphrase and commentary on the Torah, even suggests that Satan told Sarah that Abraham actually slaughtered Isaac, and that she cried out in grief and fell down dead.

Either way, according to this perspective, she did not fully wait to hear any news from Abraham himself. She assumed the worse!

How often do we do the same thing? It does not matter how many miracles we have witnessed, how many blessings we have experienced, or the promises we have been told. When things begin to go sour we often assume the worst. Instead of trusting G-d we begin blaming Him before even waiting to find out any news.

We don’t exactly know why Sarah died. But we do know that worrying and thinking negatively do not help any situation. That is why we are encouraged to “be anxious for nothing” (Phil 4:6). And when we do find ourselves sinking in despair, we must take those thoughts captive (2 Cor 10:5) and focus on what we know to be true. For in Torah, and through the Living Torah, we have the ability to understand fully who we really are, what’s in store, and what G-d expects from us.

Quote of the Day

Oct 27, 2010 at 5:29 PM

"The Law is our treasure, in which we rejoice. It is a hidden treasure because the deepest spiritual meaning is as yet not made perfectly clear to us. Yet one thing we know: it is the revelation of G-d, and this makes it very precious to us. But the day will come when the divine mysteries of the Law will be unfolded by the Messiah, and we shall see G-d face to face. Then our souls will be filled with delight."

-Paul Philip Levertoff, "Love and the Messianic Age," pg. 58.

Holy Brother: A Reflection on Reb Shlomo

Oct 24, 2010 at 12:45 PM

Today marks the 16th yahrzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z"l. His influence on the Jewish community is in some ways completely unmeasurable.

It is almost impossible to walk into a synagogue today and not hear at least one of his melodies. So many of his songs have become so famous that they are now simply referred to as "traditional Jewish folk songs." All of us (at least us youngsters) grew up with songs like Am Yisrael Chai and Siman Tov u'Mazel Tov. For many of us who know these melodies as synagogue staples it is hard to believe that they were not handed down at Sinai and passed along ever since (a small joke).

It is also difficult to meet a Jew (particularly a boomer) who does not have a story of how Reb Shlomo changed their lives. Not only did Reb Shlomo change the world musically, he changed it one sweet neshama at a time. He always referred to everyone as "holy sister..." or "holy brother..." and greeted everyone with a smile and a hug. And everyone who met him, even for a moment, felt as though he was their best friend.

And interestingly, there is a whole new generation of people, like myself, who have been so incredibly impacted by Reb Shlomo - and yet, we never personally met him. His music, his stories, and his teachings are continuing to inspire people spiritually.

What is even more amazing are the stories people do not know. Stories that have only surfaced since his passing. Stories of how he would go to prisons and visit and sing to Jews and non-Jews, sick children who Reb Shlomo would visit in homes and hospitals, and the countless dollars he extended to anyone in need. Not only was he a great rabbi to the world - he was also a rabbi to the fringes of society. Reb Shlomo considered every soul a diamond. Some, he said, might need a little polishing, but everyone was special. Many homeless, unaffiliated, and even countless non-Jews all referred to Reb Shlomo as "my rabbi."

Although most people know Reb Shlomo for his music, many do not know about how great a chacham (a sage) he truly was. Reb Shlomo was born in Germany to a great line of rabbis. He was considered a prodigy as a young child, and his parents made sure that he received only the best tutelage in his studies of Torah and Jewish law.

As the Second World War broke out in Europe, his parents came to America, where his father planted a synagogue. Reb Shlomo continued his studies, eventually finding himself at the prestigious Lakewood Yeshiva (a sort of Harvard of the yeshiva world).

During his time in America, Reb Shlomo became more and more intrigued with Chasidus - the philosophy and way of life of Chasidic Jews. And then something happened to him that changed his life forever - the Holocaust. Upon hearing of the devastating news of the Holocaust, Reb Shlomo decided to leave Lakewood for the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Crown Heights. Many people asked Shlomo what his reason was for choosing to leave the prestigious Lakewood yeshiva for what was considered a much lesser yeshiva. And Reb Shlomo responded with, "I have '6 Million' reasons ..."

What attracted Reb Shlomo to Lubavitch Chasidus was its emphasis on outreach. Its insistence that every Jew is holy. That is why Reb Shlomo left Lakewood. Following the Shoah, he foresaw his role as being prophetic - as being a light to rekindle the Jewish flame.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach personally did more than any other Jew in modern times in regard to keruv (Jewish outreach). Reb Shlomo is personally credited with bringing tens of thousands of Jews back to Judaism and spirituality. What was his secret? Getting involved! He went to places where Jews were. If that meant to Jewish day schools ... he went. If that meant to prisons ... Shlomo packed his guitar. If it meant to Buddhist ashrams and temples ... Reb Shlomo went singing the most Jewish of songs. And it worked!!!

Shlomo was just who he was. Reb Shlomo, along with his colleague, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (who later founded the Jewish Renewal Movement) were the creators and the initiates of outreach on college campuses, “Chabad Houses,” and engaging people in the specialness of being Jewish. Reb Shlomo truly understood the mitzvah of “leaving the world more Jewish than you found it.”

A Strange Set of Priorities

Oct 22, 2010 at 12:22 PM

Parashat Vayyera

Why does Abraham argue with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not over abandoning Hagar and Ishmael, or over killing his own son, Isaac?

In Parashat Vayyera, Abraham betrays a strange set of personal priorities. Still recovering from his recent circumcision, Abraham leaps at the chance to offer hospitality to strangers on their way to Sodom. While entertaining them, he learns that God plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. Abraham enters into a lengthy and highly stylized argument with God over these plans:

"Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Genesis 18: 23–25)"

Abraham eventually bargains God down from fifty to ten, but ten righteous men are not found in Sodom or Gomorrah, and so the cities are destroyed. Later in the portion, God tells Abraham to follow Sarah’s desire to banish Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael from their community. The text says that Abraham was distressed over this decision, but there is no record of an argument with God on the matter. Abraham banishes Hagar, sending her off with only bread and water. Ishmael nearly dies of thirst in the wilderness as a result.

Finally, God tells Abraham to take his son, his favorite son, the one he loves . . . Isaac, and kill him. God gets no argument from Abraham. There is no talk of the rights of the innocent, no defense of the righteousness of Isaac. In fact, the text says that Abraham hastened to obey. He got up early the next morning and set off with his son, fully intending to offer him on Mount Moriah as a burnt offering.

In combination, these stories leave us with the impression that Abraham is far more concerned with the welfare of strangers than shalom bayit in his own home. Indeed, halfway through this portion, Abraham has made a second attempt to pimp out his wife Sarah to a king in exchange for material comforts (Genesis 20:3). And by the beginning of next week’s portion, his son Isaac is no longer speaking to him. When his wife drops dead from the distress of learning that her husband was planning to kill her only son, Abraham snaps out of his stupor and arranges a lavish burial for her.

Abraham seems eager to enter into an argument with God over the welfare of people he barely knows, but is all too willing to comply with commandments that would tear his family apart. He is left a widower, estranged from his beloved son, clinging to the promise that his descendants will outnumber the stars in the sky. This is not the behavior of a “family man,” at least not by 21st century standards. Yet he is remembered as righteous and is hailed as an example of unfaltering faith in God and God’s promises.

It is difficult to make sense of this paradox. It is easy to walk away from this portion scratching one’s head, asking “why, God, did you choose to build a nation from these people?” Perhaps that is exactly the point. Our Scriptures are littered with the tales of deeply flawed men and women who demonstrate their skewed priorities through their everyday choices. God does great things through them in spite of themselves. Let us remember that even our revered patriarchs could not hold their families together. “Lest we think too highly of ourselves” (Romans 12:3).

Quote of the Day

Oct 19, 2010 at 1:35 PM

"At the very outset I make my honest and public confession, the result of earnest thought and inward struggle, that it is my steadfast, unalterable conviction ... Yes, as a Rabbi grown grey in office, as an old Jew faithful to the Law, I confess candidly, Jesus is the predicted Messiah of Israel ... for whom we long, and for whose Advent our people have ever expected. He is come! This is now my shout of rejoicing, which my lips and pen, and, if G-d wills, my prolonged life shall serve to make known."

-Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein, former Chief Rabbi of the norther district of Hungary, from his "An Appeal to the Jewish People."

"Get Out!"

Oct 15, 2010 at 10:07 AM

Parashat Lekh Lekha

Get Out!” - G-d makes it very clear to Avram that only through self imposed exile can he attain his ultimate spiritual potential.

Parashat Lekh Lekha, unlike our first two portions in Genesis, emphasizes this convergence between G-d and creation. According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Torah thus far can be summarized as: Breishit describes the works of G-d; Noach describes the efforts of humanity; and Lekh Lekha describes the cooperation between humanity (Avraham) and G-d.

The opening phrase of our Torah portion, “Lekh Lekha” is usually translated “Go forth.” However, it can also be translated as “Go into yourself.” In this case, G-d is not just asking Avram to leave a physical place, G-d is asking him to delve into, and thereby, leave himself and enter into a covenant – a special relationship between himself and HaShem.

With a little help from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the opening phrase can be further broken down into these personal applications:

  • Lekh Lekha (Go forth) …” – We must leave ourselves to reveal our true identities.
  • From your land …” – Alludes to leaving behind all worldliness, and all physical desires which keep us from growing spiritually.
  • From your birthplace …” – Requires abandoning our comfort zones and those practices we often do by rote (including spiritual acts done by rote like prayer and mitzvot). We must especially leave behind those negative habits we were brought up to follow.
  • From your father’s house …” – Alludes to our own rationalization, and our own perceived wisdom.
  • To the land that I will show you …” – G-d desires that we all should reach our spiritual land. As such, only G-d will lead us to and reveal to us true spirituality.

However, the secret to finding our true identities requires sacrificing ourselves and our own comforts and finding ourselves in relation to G-d. “Going forth” requires abandoning those things which hold us back, and pressing on to that which lies ahead.

The primary jewel we can glean from Lekh Lekha is faith. Like Avram, we may not always be able to grasp G-d’s desires for us. We may even doubt, just as Avram did when G-d repeatedly promised he would have many offspring. However, in the end Avram believed. No matter his doubts, he had faith that G-d would indeed fulfill His promises.

"And [Avram] believed in HaShem, and it was accounted to him as righteousness." (Genesis 15:6)

By faith, G-d reveled to Avraham the mysteries of heaven, blessed him and his family, and led him into the Promised Land. The author of Hebrews further emphasizes:

"Without faith, it is impossible to please G-d, for whoever approaches Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him." (Hebrews 11:6).

It is not enough just to believe that G-d exists. We must also believe that G-d is faithful to reward those who seek Him, just as Hebrews states. We must “Go forth!” We must exile ourselves from our comfort zones and away from ourselves so that in the end, when we finally step into the Promised Land, we will step into the place of destiny and blessing.

Quote of the Day

Oct 13, 2010 at 4:07 PM

"Everything that is born, dies. We acknowledge our mortality, but should we give it much thought? The Spanish philosopher de Unamuno wrote that the syllogism that used to be taught in logic classes — Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore Socrates is mortal — sounds very different when rendered: I am a man; all men are mortal; therefore I will die.

Spinoza wrote that a wise man thinks of nothing less than death. Very different is the advice of Freud, "we recall the old proverb, if you want to preserve peace, arm for war. Well, if you want to endure life, prepare for death."

Judaism demands attention to this world, yet keeps us aware of our eventual fate. We are continually reminded that we are fleeting, that our lives are like the wind that blows, like the flower that fades. On Yom Kippur we dressed in white, reminiscent of the shrouds in which we will be buried. Judaism asks us to grasp both ends: we know we will die, and therefore should treasure life. Our time is given vividness and urgency by being limited. Love is more precious knowing the sun will set."

-Rabbi David Wolpe, from his weekly "Off the Pulpit"

A Flood and a Tower

Oct 8, 2010 at 4:10 PM

Parashat Noach

A Flood and a Tower. These are the two central narratives within this week's parashah. Noach is rich with lessons for our day, connections to other biblical events, and full of historical allusions within the greater ancient Near East.

The most central narrative within the parashah is of course the account of the flood, of Noah and his family, and the salvation of all living creatures through the building of an ark (a wood vessel). This story alone is so rich with details - but due to time - that post will have to wait until next year. Rather, what I would like to do is just quickly touch on a few interesting points.

The Ark

The ark that Noach builds is called in Hebrew a Tevah (תבה). This word only appears in two places in the entire Torah. Where is the other place? In Exodus. The only other time the word Tevah is used is in reference to the reed "basket" Moshe is placed in by his mother and hidden in the river, only to be later discovered by Pharaoh's daughter.

This was intentional. The use of the word Tevah is meant to connect these two stories. So what are the connections between the two narratives? Both of these are mysterious "vessels." They are literally boxes. When you look at the dimensions of the ark in the Torah, it is not a typical ship. It is a box. They are both covered with pitch. Both are also "divinely directed." Meaning, neither of them are guided by human means. The ark has no ors, or any type of steering mechanism. The reed basket Moshe is placed in is also divinely directed, left to the current of the river.

Both figures emerge from their respective Tevah to become a type of redeeming figure - a savior of humanity. And both are recognized for their obedience and faith to HaShem. The Torah wants to make clear that Noach is a redeeming figure similar to Moshe. The use of these connections also ties the whole narrative (and all the intermediate narratives) together.

I have not event touched on the connection of the Biblical flood account to other flood accounts known throughout the world, let alone the Ancient Near Eastern flood account of Utnapishtim.

The Tower of Bavel

The other narrative central to this week's parashah is the Tower of Bavel. According to the Torah, a great "tower" was built in the plain of Shinar, intended to reach up into the heavens. G-d destroyed the tower and scattered the people across the earth, and confused their languages because of their intentions.

The reference to Shinar is believed by scholars to be ancient Sumer (one of the earliest great civilizations), and more broadly to Mesopotamia as a whole. Interestingly, the tower is called Bavel, most likely a reference to the Mesopotamian city with the same name - Bavel (Babylon).

According to the Biblical account, the purpose for building the Tower was to reach the heavens so they could make a name for themselves (Gen. 11:4). Scholars have long connected this story with the great Mesopotamian temples, known as Ziggurats – which were massive stepped pyramid structures. Ziggurats were places where priests offered prayers, offerings, and sacrifices to the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods.

Another interesting possible connection is that the great ziggurat in Babylon was called "E-sag-ila," meaning, "the head that reaches the gods." The same concept behind the biblical account. Maybe this is further insight into the reason G-d destroyed the Tower of Bavel???

So, what are we to make of all this?

The Scriptures contain a wealth of historical allusions and references. It is fascinating just how many there really are when you are familiar with ancient Near Eastern civilizations. But these narratives were included for particular reasons - theological reasons. They were meant to demonstrate to their ancient listeners (our ancestors) that the G-d of Israel was in fact the G-d of the flood account, which was known throughout the world. And the narrative of the Tower of Bavel is meant to demonstrate that the G-d of Israel is greater then the pantheon of Mesopotamian gods, and was meant to explain the reason for various people and languages spread throughout the world.

May we, like Noach, learn to hear from HaShem. May we also be bold enough, like Noach, to act on whatever G-d asks of us. HaShem may not ask us all to build an ark, but sometimes G-d asks of us tasks that are often just as difficult in faith and action. The lesson of this parashah is that difficult faith is rewarded, and that the same all powerful G-d is also active in the world around us today to help us through life's most difficult trials.

Chodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom!

Quote of the Day

Oct 6, 2010 at 2:43 PM

"Man has been created by God in order that he may finish what God has deliberately left unfinished. Not that God needs the help of His creatures, but it is His love which causes Him to impart His own Nature to the work of His hands, in order than man should have the privilege and joy of becoming His fellow-worker in this world, in natural as well as in spiritual life.

Moreover, in a certain sense God does need men, in order to exercise His kingship. A king needs a people that accept his rule voluntarily. God, by virtue of His character, needs a being to whom He can reveal Himself, whom He can love, and through whom He can shed abroad His light and life.

The ultimate issues of this truth are of the most vital and cosmic significance, for God Himself is affected by our life."

-Paul Philip Levertoff, "Love and the Messianic Age," pg. 41.

Genesis in Context

Oct 4, 2010 at 10:36 AM

I love the book of Genesis! Not only as a religious Jew, bust as an academic. I value the theological understandings gleaned through thousands of years of Jewish interpretation. However, I also value the rich tradition of Genesis from its historical and literary understanding, which is also teaming with Ancient Near Eastern allusions, language, and places.

The Bible is a product of the Ancient Near East. When we view the Bible also from the perspective of literature, we can appreciate the context out of which it was birthed, the particulars of the people who brought it forth, and its similarities to other ANE texts.

Although the creation account in Genesis differs from other creation accounts and has its own unique characteristics, there are also many ANE allusions. The idea of “tohu v’vohu,” of the earth being in utter chaos prior to Creation, of the “firmament (or dome)” above the earth, our world of humanity being separated by the “upper” and “lower” waters, and of course even the concept of the Garden of Eden. Interestingly, the word Eden itself is not Hebrew. It is a Sumerian word that finds its way into the Bible through Akkadian influence.

Ancient Sumer (the Biblical “Shinar”) was the cradle of civilization. It is the earliest known civilization in the world and spanned over three-thousand years – from the 6th millennium to the 2nd millennium BCE. Sumer was the birthplace of complex society, the wheel, and of agriculture. It was also the birthplace of writing (ca. 3500 BCE).

The heart of ancient Mesopotamia is between the two great rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates, which are mentioned in Genesis as two of the rivers bordering the Garden of Eden. Several of these earliest cities are mentioned in the first three Torah portions – Bavel, Uruk (Biblical Erech), Akkad, Nineveh, and Ur (just to name a few). The biblical patriarch Abraham, himself, came from Ur in Southern Mesopotamia.

The flood story of Noah is also interestingly paralleled in earlier ANE versions; however, I will not expand on this as my friend Derek has blogged on it extensively in the past.

Even the idea of the Tower of Babel is believed to be an allusion to the great Mesopotamian temples, known as Ziggurats – which were massive stepped pyramid temple structures. Ziggurats were places where priests offered prayers, offerings, and sacrifices to the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods.

As a religious Jew I obviously attribute theological truth to Genesis as Scripture. However, it is important that we understand Genesis for what it is, and what it is not. We should not try to read especially the creation account too literally. It was never intended to be a scientific or historical account of Creation (although it may contain scientific and historical information). Rather, Genesis is a theological account of Creation. As I mentioned last week, Genesis is meant to directly establish G-d as the sovereign of the universe. As such, the Torah speaks only in general terms to illustrate that nothing came into being except at G-d's command. Unlike other origin stories circulating around the Ancient Near East, the Biblical account makes no attempt to explain the origins of G-d, or try to persuade the listener of God's existence. The existence of G-d, in Judaism, is an axiomatic fact. Therefore it immediately jumps to the explanation of G-d's creation of heaven and earth, and to what G-d expects of His creation.

Creation and the Hidden Light

Oct 1, 2010 at 3:35 PM

Parashat Breishit

The Torah relates the story of the six days of creation in order to refute other theories that claim that the universe came into being through some cosmic accident or coincidence. As such, the story of creation speaks only in general terms to illustrate that nothing came into being except at G-d's command. The Hebrew word, bara, emphasizes this. The word bara, used here for “create,” grammatically can only be used in connection to G-d (never for humans), and alludes to the creation of something from nothing.

The Torah's narrative of creation is meant to directly establish G-d as the sovereign of the universe. Unlike other creation accounts circulating around the Ancient Near East, the Biblical account makes no attempt to explain the origins of G-d, or try to persuade the listener of G-d's existence. The existence of God is an axiomatic fact. Therefore it immediately jumps to the explanation of G-d's creation of heaven and earth.

In verse three, G-d says “'Let there be light': and there was light.” If the sun and moon were not created until the fourth day of creation (see 1:14-19), what is the “light” that is being spoken of here?

Interestingly there are two answers:

A medieval rabbinic anthology commenting on this verse states:

'And G-d saw the light, that it was good.' This is the light of the teach you that G-d saw the generation of Messiah and His works before He created the universe, and He hid the Messiah ...under His throne of glory. Satan asked G-d, Master of the Universe: “For whom is this Light under your Throne of Glory?' G-d answered him, 'It is for...[the Messiah] who is to turn you backward and in who will put you to scorn with shamefacedness (Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah 60).'

The pre-existence of Messiah, and his presence at creation has been discussed widely among many Jewish writers throughout history. According to Midrash HaGadol, “The final goal of humanity is to attain the state of the days of Mashiach; therefore the name of Mashiach had to be formulated even before the world's inception (Midrash HaGadol, 1:1).”

According to the Talmud:

It was taught that seven things were created before the world was created; they are the Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gey-Hinnom, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah...The name of the Messiah, as it is written: 'May his name [the name of the Messiah] endure forever, may his name produce issue prior to the sun (Pesachim 54a, Nedarim 39a, also Midrash on Ps. 93:3).'

The light, which the rabbis speak of as alluding to the Messiah, is also a representation of the “Ein Sof,” the hidden aspect of G-d. Midrashic legend teaches that this light is hidden until the time of the Messianic Age, after which it will be once more revealed. When this happens, it will be like in Revelation (Rev. 21:22-23, 22:5, etc.), where there will no longer be any need of the sun, for G-d's “Ein Sof,” His presence, will provide all needed light.

The entire New Testament echoes this thought as well. However, no where is the Messiah more clearly connected to the themes of light and creation than in the book of John:

“In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with G-d, and the Word was G-d.

He was with G-d in the beginning.

All things came to be through him,

and without him nothing made had being.

In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind.

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness has not suppressed it

…The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,

and we saw his Sh’khinah,

the Sh’khinah of the father’s only Son,

full of grace and truth.”

John 1:1-5, 14

May our divine Messiah, Yeshua, who was present at creation, continue to work in each of our lives to dispel the darkness, and make each of us into a new creation!