Archive for November, 2000

Chayei Sarah 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:18)

OVERVIEW

The portion Chayei Sarah- the “life of Sarah”- serves as a bridge between the story of Avraham and Sarah and the next generations. Sarah dies, and Avraham buys the cave of Machpelah in which to bury her. Avraham then sends his servant to find a wife for his son Yitzhak. The servant finds Rivkah, and then goes to meet her family, including her brother Lavan. Lavan will later figure prominently in the story of Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah. At the end of the portion, Avraham dies, and is buried by his two sons, Yitzhak and Yishmael.

IN FOCUS

“Avraham was old, advanced in age, and God had blessed Avraham in everything.” (Genesis 24:1)

PSHAT

After burying Sarah in the cave of Machpelah, Avraham turns his attention to finding a partner for Yitzhak, so that the family covenant may be continued. (One might say that worries about Jewish continuity are nothing new!) In between settling the last details of the burial and Avraham’s instructions to his servant, the Torah tells us that Avraham was blessed with “everything,” bakol.

DRASH

An obvious difficulty with our passage is that it seems out of place. Why is Avraham described as blessed with “everything” before he sends his servant out to find a partner for Yitzhak? Wouldn’t it make more sense after the servant comes back and Yitzhak has children? In fact, Rashi, among others, notices this problem and therefore links this passage to Avraham’s desire to find a wife for Yitzhak- this would make the blessing truly complete.

On the other hand, some classic midrashic sources offer very different interpretations of Avraham’s blessing in “everything.” Midrash Rabbah is a compilation of midrashim dating back to the era of the Talmud; it records diverse opinions about this verse:

    . .and God had blessed Avraham in everything. R. Yehudah said: It means that God gave him a female. R. Nehemiah replied: [You mean] she was the centre of the king’s household [i.e., Avraham’s] household, but there is no record of a blessing about her!

    Maybe and God had blessed Avraham in everything doesn’t mean God gave him a daughter? R. Levi gave three [interpretations.] “Everything”- he ruled over his desires. “Everything”- that Yishmael achieved reconciliation in his [Avraham’s] lifetime. “Everything”- that his storehouse never lacked for anything. R. Levi said in the name of R. Hama : It means that God did not test him again.

    (Genesis Rabbah 59:7, translation mine, based on notes in the Mirkin edition.)

R. Yehudah says that Avraham’s blessing was complete because he had a daughter. What I like about his midrash is that it softens the patriarchy of the Biblical narrative, which is so focussed on sons. R. Yehudah points out that the blessing of “everything” comes from both sons and daughters together. While I appreciate R. Yehudah’s effort to restore balance to the text, R. Nehemiah also has a good argument against this reading of it: we have no mention in the Torah of God making Avraham blessed with a daughter, and lots of mentions of the blessing of a son.

R. Levi offers three reasons why Avraham’s blessing was described as “everything.” One, Avraham achieved spiritual discipline and self-knowledge, controlling his passions and desires. Two, that Yishmael and Yitzhak were reconciled in their father’s lifetime. This interpretation is based the traditional rabbinic understanding of Yishmael as destructively jealous of Yitzhak, yet coming together with his brother to bury their father, in verse 25:9. The rabbis say that Yishmael’s reconciliation with Yitzhak happened before Avraham died; there is scant textual evidence for this, but it’s a lovely midrash. Finally, R. Levi says that Avraham was blessed with sufficient sustenance.

R. Levi then offers one last theory of Avraham’s extraordinary blessing: that his tests were concluded with the near-sacrifice of Yitzhak, in ch. 22. There is a strong midrashic tradition that Avraham had 10 tests, beginning with the call to leave his homeland, and ending with the Binding of Yitzhak- R. Levi points out that having calm and peaceful time, without a new crisis every day, is a complete blessing in and of itself!

Turning R. Levi’s words around, we might point out that calling something a “blessing” is to name it as a spiritual value or goal- we don’t feel “blessed” by things we don’t really value. R. Levi is then setting out a vision of the ideal life, a life that encompasses emotional, material, and spiritual goals. Avraham, he says, had deep self-knowledge and discipline; was able to experience harmony in his family; had enough material possessions so that he never suffered want; and came through life’s challenges with a sense of peace, a sense that the “tests” were not so dramatic anymore.

“Everything,” in R. Levi’s interpretation, means all aspects of life, both the inner world and outward reality. It seems to imply a harmony between one’s spirituality and one’s situation, which we might note Avraham is not described as having till he was “advanced in years.” Thus R. Levi teaches us not only about our sacred texts, but what might become our sacred values.

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Vayera 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYera (Gen. 18:1-22:24)

OVERVIEW

Avraham is visited by angels who announce that Sarah will have a son; she doesn’t believe it. Avraham then argues with God about the justice of destroying the two sinful cites, Sdom and Amorah. A crowd in Sdom tries to force Lot, Abraham’s nephew, to surrender his guests; he escapes the ensuing destruction with his two daughters, who lay with their father when they think the whole world is destroyed. Sarah enters the household of the king of Gerar. Sarah does have a son, Yitzhak. God saves Hagar and Yishmael in the desert and makes 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

“His wife looked back, and became a pillar of salt.” (Genesis 19:26)

PSHAT

In the beginning of the chapter, the residents of Sdom commit a terrible outrage by demanding the right to molest Lot’s guests; these mysterious guests are apparently angels, but Lot doesn’t seem to know that. In an extremely problematic passage, he offers his daughters to the crowd in place of his guests. The angels warn Lot and his family to flee, for God is about to destroy the wicked city; they are warned not to look back upon the destruction, but Lot’s wife does, and is turned into the famous “pillar of salt.”

DRASH

The story of Lot and his family has many layers of meaning and interpretation; ultimately, it seems to be a tragedy for almost all concerned. Even though Avraham argued with God that there may be a few good people in the sinful city (ch. 18), one could argue that Sdom is almost a paradigm of the lawless, amoral society that the Torah abhors. Thus the story of its punishment may be the Torah’s way of expressing its utter disapproval of such a community.

On the other hand, the punishment of Lot’s wife seems totally disproportionate to the “crime,” as it were. For a moment, let’s take the story at face value; here we have a scene of complete chaos, with Lot and his wife and daughters fleeing for the hills in haste and panic- how can looking back be worthy of such a fate?

Nahum Sarna, in the JPS Torah Commentary, suggests that Lot’s wife was not punished, per se, but “looking back” means that she lingered too long and was overwhelmed by the heavenly fire. Although other classic sources like the Rashbam (a descendant of Rashi) say the same thing, this doesn’t make sense to me, because this was not a natural disaster, but an act of Divine Will. Again, taking the story at face value, it seems that if God is sending a special fire from heaven, God can choose whom it affects, just as God sent the plagues in Egypt to afflict only the Egyptians and not the Israelites. For example, compare this story to Exodus 9, where God sends a plague on the Egyptian cattle but not the Israelite cattle.

Other classic commentators understand the warning “do not look” in verse 17 in moral terms:

    Rashi suggests it is not proper for someone who is saved from the disaster to see the punishment of others

    Alshich suggests a variation on this, that those who were worthy to be saved should not look on God’s awesome power. I understand Alshich to be saying that to look directly on the great miracle would be a kind of impunity or arrogance.

    Kli Yakar suggests that Lot and his wife were troubled because of all the property they left behind that was being destroyed, and in looking back, Lot’s wife was indicating her concern or attachment to these material possessions.

    Rashbam and Hizkuni also quote a midrash that Lot’s wife was looking back to check on her sons-in-law, who were still in Sdom. In verse 12, the crowd demands Lot’s sons-in-law, so maybe this midrash takes that as evidence that Lot had other daughters other than the ones who escaped with him. Presumably, these sons-in-law were part of the Sdomite crowd and the midrash doesn’t have any problem with including them in the fate of the rest of the city.

Although there are salt formations near the Dead Sea called “Lot’s wife,” I don’t think this fantastic story came down to us only to explain the names of geological sites. What all the traditional commentators pick up on is the idea that sometimes you have to get out of a bad situation as fast as you can- there is a time for reflection and a time for moving on. To me, this is the symbolic meaning of the “pillar of salt.” Salt, even in ancient days, was a preservative; something covered by salt was something that wasn’t going to change, something that was tough and lifeless.

In this reading, perhaps Lot’s wife is a symbol of someone who can’t let go of the past, someone who only reluctantly moves on from a previous phase of life, and is always therefore held back in her spiritual journey. This is not to say that remembrance and introspection aren’t very important at the right time; we might rather learn that remembrance and introspection can be paralyzing at the wrong time. Even someone who is growing and evolving can sometimes stay attached to parts of themselves that they need to leave behind. The challenge is to know when to do that, and when not get stuck in one place forever, like the tragic case of Lot’s wife.

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Lech Lecha 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1-17:27)

OVERVIEW

The first two parshiot of Genesis tell the story of the creation of the world; with this, the third parsha, the story shifts to the beginnings of the Jewish people. Avram and Sarai (later to become Avraham and Sarah) travel from their home in the East, to Canaan in the west, then to Egypt and back to Canaan, having adventures and conflicts along the way. God strikes a dramatic and mystical covenant with Avram to give him land and descendants, and changes his name. Finally, (now) Abraham has a son with Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant; this causes family tensions.

IN FOCUS

“Avram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. . . God appeared to Avram and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land”- then he built an altar there to God Who had appeared to him. ” (Genesis 12:6-7)

PSHAT

At the beginning of Avram’s travels, he arrives in Canaan (what the land of Israel is called at this point in time) with his family and possessions, and again encounters the mysterious God who commanded him to leave his home and come to this foreign land. When God first appeared to Avram, in 12:1, God promised Avram to make of Avram a “great nation.” Only now, in his second encounter with the Divine, is this blessing connected to a specific land.

DRASH

The Torah often uses very compact language to tell its narratives. In this case, we have a whole story in just two verses. Avram has traveled across whole countries; at the end of this part of the journey, God appears to him and elaborates on the Divine promise made in Avram’s homeland. In response to this spiritual experience, Avram builds an altar. Presumably, Avram is feeling a sense of awe, of gratitude, of reverence, and can only think of channeling or focussing these feelings into the form of worship that is familiar to him.

At this point we find a disagreement in the commentaries about Avram’s motivations in building the altar. Rashi says that Avram built the altar because of the promise of children and land- in other words, Avram was grateful for the specific content of God’s promise to him. This would be easy to understand- who wouldn’t be grateful for the promise of a wonderful future?

Ohr HaChaim offers a different understanding of Avram’s gratitude:

    The intent of the Torah is show us Avraham’s [sic] great love for his Creator. For when God appeared to him and promised him descendants and the giving of the Land, he did not consider this to be much, in comparison to his joy at the revealing of the Presence of the Blessed One. This is a fulfillment of the verse: “the fullness of joys is Your Presence.” (Psalm 16:11) This is why it says “then he built an altar there to God Who had appeared to him,” because he was so overjoyed at God’s appearance to him that he built the altar. (Translation mine, after consulting the translation by Eliyahu Munk.)

What I like about the Ohr HaChaim’s commentary is that it suggests that Avram’s spiritual greatness was not that he merited a Divine Covenant, but that he was able to love God for God’s own sake, not just to get something out of it. This kind of relationship with God is just like a profound relationship with a human being- one can love simply because one’s beloved is simply present, not because of any specific manifestation of that love.

For example, if my best friend gives me a birthday cake, I might embrace him in gratitude, but it’s not really gratitude for the cake, per se. Hopefully, I would be emotionally mature enough to experience the gratitude as a response to my friend’s caring, to the fact that my friend remembered me, that he or she was simply there, fully present in my life. The cake is just an outward manifestation of that caring, fully present relationship.

Perhaps one insight underlying the Ohr HaChaim’s midrash is the idea that a love dependent on outward manifestations can become fickle or unstable, whereas a love which emerges from within, which depends only on the presence of the beloved, can better survive the ups and downs of any relationship. If we “bless God only for the good,” we risk becoming spiritually alienated when life gets hard; if we can find an inner connection to the Source of all Being, we can stay spiritually centred through all our journeys. The Ohr HaChaim seems to be suggesting that Avram would have been just as happy if God appeared to him and promised him nothing at all; this is a spiritual love which can endure, just as Avram’s faith seems to have endured throughout all his tests and travels.

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Noach 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Noah (Gen. 6:9-11:32)

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 flood, God establishes the Rainbow covenant with every living creature. Humans decide to challenge God by building the Tower of Babel, so they become dispersed. The genealogy at the end introduces us to the major figures of the next section.

IN FOCUS

“And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between Me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set My rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Genesis 9:12-16)

PSHAT

After the earth is purged of its violence, and the floodwaters have receded, God makes a new covenant with Noach, his family, and all the creatures of the earth, promising them that they will never again suffer God’s anger in such a manner. It introduces the idea of the interrelationship between humans and the Earth into the Biblical framework, while also demonstrating God’s attributes of patience and sustenance.

DRASH

To the ancient world, a rainbow could only be a symbol from God. To contemporary North Americans, it is another kind of symbol, a symbol of political coalitions and social activism. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson wanted to build a broad, inclusive social movement, he called it the Rainbow Coalition. Gay and lesbian activists use the rainbow for similar reasons, as a symbol demonstrating their commitment to include all kinds of people in an accepting society.

At least one Torah commentator understood the rainbow covenant from Genesis in the same vein:

    “I have set My rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. . . ” How does the rainbow symbolize peace, unity and the sustenance of the world? Just a rainbow is made of different colors and shades, which are joined into a unified wholeness, so too [must be] the differences between people, societies, groups or nations. Life is based on understanding and measured tolerance, upon harmony and peace- these are the basis for the continued existence of the world, “a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.” (Z. Hillel, quoted in Itturei Torah)

In this time of change and uncertainty, when violence rages in the Middle East and in parts of Africa; when both Canadian and American citizens are preparing to elect national leaders; when ethnic tensions are rising in Europe and Asia; and when religious difference threaten the peace of nations across the world, the promise of the rainbow covenant becomes more poignant than ever. Just as humans brought about disaster with their violence and conflict before the Flood, so to we can bring about disaster now, with a destruction of our own making. God may have put the rainbow in the clouds, but it’s up to us to unify the colors and stripes here on earth. This covenant has been our challenge since ancient days, to make peace on earth as the peace of the heavens.

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