Archive for October, 1999

Vayera 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
Continuing the story of Avraham and Sarah, our Torah portion this week opens with Avraham sitting in his tent, recovering from his circumcision, and being visited by 3 mysterious men, apparently messengers from God, who visit and tell Avraham and Sarah that Sarah will indeed bear a son. She doesn’t believe it, and laughs. God decides to warn Avraham that Sdom and Amorah, two sinful cities, will be destroyed. Avraham argues with God for the sake of the righteous ones in those cities, but there aren’t enough good people to save them. A crowd in Sdom tries to force Lot to turn over his guests; he escapes the destruction with his two daughters, who sleep with their father when they think the whole world is destroyed. Avraham and Sarah travel to Gerar and Sarah enters the house of the king there. Sarah does have a son, Yitzhak, and she expels Hagar and Yishmael when she thinks they threaten Yitzhak, but God saves them and makes them a promise that Yishmael too will be a great nation. Finally, Avraham hears the call from God to take Yitzhak and offer him as a sacrifice; at the last minute, Avraham’s hand is stopped by an angel, and a ram is offered instead.

IN FOCUS
And Avraham raised his eyes and saw- behold, a ram!- afterwards, caught in the bushes by its thorns; so Avraham went and took the ram and offered it up instead of his son.
(Genesis 22:13)

PSHAT

The story of the binding and (almost) sacrifice of Yitzhak is complex and troubling; one possible reading that the Torah seems to support is that God was testing Avraham’s faith, and when he passed by showing his willingness to sacrifice even his son for God, God gave him an alternative, the ram.

DRASH
Pirke Avot [“Sayings of the Ancestors], a section of the Mishnah devoted to advice for ethical and reverent living, quotes a list of special, miraculous things that were created on the last day of Creation- i.e., things that can’t be explained in any normal or rational or scientific manner except that somehow God created these things as exceptions to the rules of nature and history. (Pirke Avot, 5:8). On this list of specially created things was “the ram for Avraham our father.”

Now, the rabbis who wrote the Mishna were intelligent people, and somehow I don’t think they were teaching only that this ram sat in the bushes caught by its horns for thousands of years just waiting for its moment to be sacrificed- though that in itself is a powerful metaphor for the patience and humility one might require if one is find one’s true purpose in life. (No, I’m not suggesting that one should sit around waiting to be sacrificed- this is only a metaphor!)

So let’s assume that the rabbis of the Mishna included this ram in their list of specially created objects because they didn’t know how else to explain it, and while they probably didn’t believe that an ordinary ram could survive under those circumstances, they were stuck with a difficult text to resolve and elucidate.

But what if the miracle weren’t in the ram, the miracle was in Avraham? Our verse says Avraham “lifted up his eyes,” and saw something that he hadn’t noticed before- a ram caught in the briars and thickets. Perhaps he was so focussed on his dreadful and apparently inescapable task that he couldn’t see what was there, right nearby, in plain sight. Avraham had to redirect not only his hand- away from his son- but also his perception- away from the idea that God really demanded such an awful sacrifice. In this reading of our verse, and of our midrash on it, the miracle is that Avraham is able to undergo a change of spiritual understanding just in time, and see alternatives just at the moment he is most “caught by the horns” in a horrible situation.

In this reading, the midrash from Pirke Avot isn’t so much about long-lived mountain sheep as it is about our own potential to grow in understanding and insight, finding miracles to be grateful for even under the direst circumstances. When the Mishna suggests that the ram was always there, the thought is completed by that part of the verse which says that Avraham “lifted up his eyes”- the ram was always there in the sense that God (I hope) never intended for Avraham to really kill Yitzhak, but the ability to see the ram- i.e., to perceive the better choice- can be understood as the deeper and yet more everyday kind of miracle.

Think of the dying person who finds peace in the faith that their loved ones will carry on his values; think of the addict who, after years of struggle, finds the strength to choose life; think of the workaholic who realizes that time with family is a truer treasure than overtime pay; think of the friendships and marriages that have been reconciled when both parties choose forgiveness over pride and nursing the grudge; think of the person with juicy but destructive gossip just on the tip of their tongue, who yet refrains from the momentary pleasure of tearing somebody else down a little bit.

The ram is always there, if we will but lift up our eyes.

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Lech Lecha 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
The first two parshiot of Genesis tell the story of the creation of the world; with this, the third parasha, the story shifts to the beginnings of the Jewish people. Avram and Sarai (later to become Avraham and Sarah) leave their home in Ur Kasdim to head out for the land of Canaan; they arrive there only to leave for Egypt and return to Canaan again. Avram’s nephew Lot is with him at first, but settles in Sdom, which will later be destroyed for its evil ways; Lot also has to be rescued by Avram in a bit of military action. God strikes a covenant with Avram to give him land and descendents, and changes his name. Finally, (now) Abraham has a son with Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant; this causes family tensions.

IN FOCUS
God spoke to Avram: Lech lecha- Take yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
(Genesis 11:1)


PSHAT*

With these words, the story of the Jewish people begins. Avram cannot worship the One God in a country of idol-worshippers, and he must travel to Canaan, later to be known as the Land of Israel, where the Jewish promise will ultimately be fulfilled. Furthermore, God’s command is Avram’s first test of faith- he must set out without knowing exactly where he is going, but only Who sends him there.

DRASH*
My colleague and friend Rabbi Anat Moskowitz found a great question pertaining to this verse, from the collection Itturei Torah (Torah Gems), which quotes a book called the Ohel Yaakov, (Tent of Jacob). The commentator points out that if one were physically leaving one’s home, the actual leaving would take place in the reverse order from our verse. In other words, one would get up and leave the house, then one’s birthplace (this commentator interprets “birthplace” as family or clan, but it might mean village or home area) and finally after travelling a bit one would reach the border and leave one’s land or country.

So the question is, why did God phrase the command in a counter-intuitive way, with land first, then birthplace, then “your father’s house?” What’s being taught here?

Our commentator, the author of the Ohel Yaakov, suggests that God is giving Avram instructions not for the physical journey but for the psychological or spiritual one. First, if one is to undertake a journey of spiritual growth, and therefore away from whatever idols are cluttering up one’s spiritual path, one must discard the characteristics of your society that inhibit one’s growth- “take yourself from your land,”- in other words, take yourself away from all the values of the general society that are not Godly ones. In our day, we might think of materialism, sexism, racism, competition, callousness to human suffering, and so forth- all things we must leave behind on our journey to Divine service.

Harder yet, the next stage of the journey, is thinking through and possibly abandoning the bad habits, misconceptions, and prejudices of our community and even our family- “your birthplace and your father’s house.” In my experience, rare is the person who has undergone a process of thoughtful maturation into the person they want to be who has not decided to live life a bit differently than their parents did. I don’t think this means one must leave behind one’s parents and community completely- I think this means that the spiritual journey involves examining and evaluating one’s habits, preferences and preconceptions, and “leaving behind” those that hold one back from one’s spiritual potential.

According to this interpretation of the story, Avram’s real test was not his willingness to undergo danger and deprivation crossing the desert, but his willingness to undertake a process of “cheshbon hanefesh”- literally an “accounting of the soul,” and understood to mean an active introspection and evaluation of one’s life and deeds. Or, in the famous words of Alcoholics Anonymous, “a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.”

Fearless rethinking of accumulated mental baggage- sounds much less exciting than Avram’s wars with the kings of Canaan, doesn’t it? But Avram’s greatness, and ours, comes not from without but from within, not from material achievements but from mental, spiritual and emotional effort, directed at love, service, prayer and truth. It takes humility and patience to grow oneself spiritually, and like Avram, for every trip to the Promised Land there may be a detour into Egypt [Mitzraim, the “narrow place.”] again. God’s promise, to Avram and to us, is that we will, eventually, get there.

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Noach 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
Creation is not off to such a good start: the earth is filled with violence and corruption, and so God decides to flood the earth and start over, choosing Noach to build an Ark to save himself and his family and at least one pair of every kind of animal. After the flook, God establishes the Rainbow covenant with every living creature. Humans decide to challenge God by building the Tower of Babel, so they become dispersed, and the portion ends by introducing us to Avram and Sarai, who will later on become Abraham and Sarah, the First Family of the Jewish nation.

IN FOCUS
“And Noach went forth, and his sons, and his wife, and his son’s wives with him.”
(Genesis 8:18)

PSHAT

After the flood, God makes the waters recede; once Noach determines that there is dry land, God gives him permission to leave the Ark with his family, and let all the animals go, so that the earth could be repopulated and the Creation process could begin again with a new covenant and a new set of “parents” for humankind.

DRASH
The contemporary Torah commentator and Reform rabbi Kerry Olitsky, in his book Renewed Each Day: Daily Twelve Step Recovery Meditations Based on the Bible, connects this verse with a famous explanation of the Adam and Chava (Eve) story. According to a midrash, God decided to create the world with just one man and just one woman so that everybody would know that they have a common ancestor, and nobody would feel superior to another. So R. Olitsky interprets the Noach story as the Torah’s way of emphasizing this point- we’re all related, we all can trace our ancestry not only to Adam and Chava, but also to Noach and his (unfortunately unnamed) wife, who were “righteous in their generation.” Thus, if the Torah really wants us to understand that we’re all connected to each other in the most basic way, through common ancestry, perhaps it’s challenging us to treat each other like the brothers and sisters we are.

The problem, of course, is that the brothers and the sisters of the Bible don’t always treat each other so well- the language of “siblinghood” is nice, but families can be cruel and jealous, as the Genesis stories of Yitzkak and Yishmael, of Yaakov and Esav, and Yosef and his brothers will all amply demonstrate in the weeks to come. In fact, I once heard another contemporary Torah scholar, Rabbi Arthur Green, say that the basic question of the entire book of Genesis is: “how can I live with my brother?”

So how DO we live in peace and harmony with the other people- our brothers and sisters, to use the Torah’s imagery- with whom we share our communities, our countries, our planet? Returning to Rabbi Olitzky’s interpretation, our capacity for loving and moral behavior is made stronger by remembering that we are not only all children of Adam and Chava but also of Noach. What’s the difference? Perhaps the difference is that Adam and Chava lived in a less complicated world than Noach did- they had violence in their family, for sure, but they didn’t have to face the pressure of resisting a whole society and its unGodly values. Noach did- he and his family weren’t perfect, but in a society filled with violence, greed, theft, corruption, materialism, and so on, he resisted and “walked with God”. (cf. Gen 6:9-13) That’s who we’re descended from- somebody who saw a better way than others did, who lived his values and faith, who rose above a society didn’t treat people as if they were not only related, but created in the Image of God.

Seen this way, the traditional Hebrew phrase “bnei Noach,” which literally means “children of Noach” but has the idiomatic meaning of [non-Jewish] “human being,” becomes a title of great dignity and hope. We are the children of great men and women, who are capable of more than we think, and who can live with our brothers and sisters in peace and love if only we will remember where we came from, and where we want to go.

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Bereshit 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center For Jewish Learning during the Jewish year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
In the first parasha (weekly portion), the cosmos is created in 7 days, ending with the culmination of creation, the weekly Sabbath. Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden, but are expelled after eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Cain and Abel fight and Cain kills his brother, thus setting up the pattern of human violence and jealousy that the rest of the characters in the Torah must struggle with.

IN FOCUS
“And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)

PSHAT

The first part of the creation story follows a certain rhythm and structure: God creates by bringing forth a certain aspect of life, from the most simple divisions through the most complex creatures, and then reviews God’s work, finding it good. (Judaism takes from this that life in this world is a good and precious thing, and should be appreciated in all its many splendors.) After the creation of human beings on the last day, God reviews the work of creation, and finds it “very good,” presumably because now there are humans in it, and the work is complete and ready for history to begin.

DRASH
The medieval commentator Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, France, lived late eleventh century) finds something grammatically unusual in this verse, and as he likes to do, uses it as the basis for a beautiful religious teaching. In all the other verses in this chapter telling us what got created on which day, it simply says: “a second day,” “a third day, ” and so on. In this verse, the day is named differently: “THE sixth day,” instead of “a sixth day.” One interpretation Rashi offers, based on an earlier book of Biblical interpretation, is that the “the” connected to “sixth day” tells us that the work of creation was at that point “hung up and standing,” and really only finished many, many years later, on the “sixth day” which would define forever after the ideal relationship between humans and the Divine.

What “sixth day” was this? The sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, upon which the Jews accepted the Torah, and which is still celebrated as the holiday of Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving and receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. I think Rashi is not only concerned with explaining an odd extra Hebrew letter (the “hay” which means “the”), but more importantly, reminding us that merely existing physically isn’t really the whole point of our lives- from the very beginning, we were put on this earth for spiritual ends as well. The idea that God’s work of creation wasn’t “complete” until Torah was given and accepted can be a metaphor for our lives: having the most wonderful life in the physical world (work, food, housing, sex, money, you name it) won’t be complete unless spiritual goals- Torah- are accepted as our guiding principles.

Rashi seems to be less concerned with the mechanics of the physical aspects of the creation story and more concerned that we understand that our cosmos has more than only a physical dimension to it. What’s true for the world as whole is true for each individual: one becomes complete not when one’s body finishes growing up but when one takes on a holy purpose in life. This parasha is only “Bereshit,” the beginning- the rest of the Torah remains to help us learn what that is, and what we are truly capable of.

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