Archive for November, 2009

Vayeitze: The Gate of Heaven

Good morning!

It was a beautiful holiday in Poughkeepsie- a glorious fall day for feasting or hiking and all kinds of merriment. So if you’re recovering from too much Thanksgiving (the meal, not the spiritual practice of giving thanks- can’t have too much of that), well, perhaps a good walk would be in order, because in addition to the exercise, you never know what you’ll encounter out on the trail.

Which brings us, of course, to the Torah portion Vayeitze, which begins with our forefather Yaakov out in the wilderness, on the lam after stealing his brother’s blessing, asleep at night while a miraculous ladder or ziggurat appears in a vision:

“He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.  And the Lord was standing beside him. . . . Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!’  Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.’ ” (Bereshit 28:12, 16-17)

Our friend Rashi brings many interesting midrashim and interpretations to this story, of which two in particular resonate with our theme this year of connecting the parsha to prayer and liturgy. First, Rashi notes that when Yaakov arrived at the place of his vision, the sun had set, and the peculiar verb used for “to arrive” is connected to a verse in Jeremiah that speaks of prayer. Thus, the ancient sages say that Yaakov prayed the evening prayer- ma’ariv– out in this place, all alone in the night.

Then he falls asleep and has his vision of the ladder or stairway to heaven, and now things get really interesting. Rashi comments on the verse quoted above, that the place of Yaakov’s vision was “the abode of God,” and concludes that the center part of the ladder was opposite Jerusalem, which housed (generations after Yaakov) the Temple, the “house of God.” Rashi brings an earlier text that the foot of the ladder was in Beersheva (where Yaakov came from) and the top was in Beit-El, north of Jerusalem- so the middle part was right opposite the Temple itself.

Now, this is a fun midrash and it connects the “abode of God” in Yaakov’s vision with the “house of God” of later Biblical history, but there’s a problem: Yaakov may call the place Beit-El, the “house of God,” but the Torah tells us it used to be called Luz, which is not Jerusalem at all! (Cf. verse 19.)  So now Rashi says something astounding: he says the ladder was opposite the Temple Mount because the Mount itself was “uprooted” from its place to the wilderness where he slept!

As I read it, the point is not that mountains move while we sleep, but that the “house of God” is a portable concept, limited not by geography but by our openness and perception. In other words- if Yaakov’s bed of rocks in the desert and the earthly Temple were both described as the “house of God,” it implies that anywhere we have radical openness to the Sacred is like the Temple Mount, holy not because of geography but because of theophany. That is, a sacred place is not where we stand, but how we see.

This, to me, is also why Rashi goes out on a midrashic limb to connect the setting sun to ma’ariv, the evening prayer- because what better way to imagine Yaakov opening himself up to a vision of the heavens than through the humility of petition and thanksgiving?

Unfortunately, I can’t promise that praying ma’ariv will lead to vision of the Divine like Yaakov’s. However, I do believe that prayer, which is the choice to open ourselves to the Presence, deepens our spiritual perception, so that we are better able to see the connection between heaven and earth, between the sacred aspect of life and the reality of our improbable journeys. To put it another way, with an open heart, anywhere you are can be the gate of Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- To see the text of the Torah portion and haftarah, go here.

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Toldot: Two Blessings

Shalom to one and all- we’re “going rogue” with this week’s drasha, which for a Torah commentary means we’re going to look at a passage from the Shabbat liturgy that may be unfamiliar to even very regular synagogue participants. Before we do that, however, let’s review what’s in the Torah portion Toldot, which begins with Yitzhak and Rivka conceiving twins, Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov persuades Esav to sell the birthright of the firstborn, and then deceives their father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, too. This makes Esav none too happy, and Yaakov has to scram back east to Rivka’s hometown.

Yaakov fooled his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. When Esav found out, he wept bitter tears and then plotted vengeance -which is why Yaakov had to skedaddle. Just before he left, however, Yaakov received one more blessing from his father, this time consciously.

These two blessings- the one that Yitzhak was deceived into giving, and the one that he gave willingly as Yaakov had to take flight- are stuck together and form part of a longer passage which is traditionally recited on Saturday night, as Shabbat itself takes its leave and we return to the work-week. In the Conservative Sim Shalom prayerbook, the two blessings form one paragraph, but I’ve separated them so it’s clear how the verses come from different passages in the Torah:

“May God give you Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, And nations bow to you; Be master over your brothers, And let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, Blessed they who bless you. . . .

May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.  May He grant the blessing of Avraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Avraham.” (Bereshit 27:28-29, 30:3-4)

There are other verses from the Torah and the rest of the Tanach [Hebrew Scriptures] which are part of the Saturday night liturgy; the basic idea is that we hope the coming week will be one of prosperity, peace and blessing, and the verses above, along with the others, speak to that sense of hope and possibility from one Shabbat to the next.

Yet it’s striking to note the Biblical context of these verses of blessing- one was stolen and the other was given right before Yitzhak’s family was split apart for decades. The other irony, of course, is that the blessing of being “master over your brothers” was given to a man about to be a fugitive, and years later Yaakov reversed the stolen blessing to bow down in humility before Esav. (Cf. the portion Vayishlach, in two weeks.)

The blessings that Yitzhak gave to Yaakov remind us that life can be messy, complicated, and painful; things aren’t always what they seem, and sometimes the best intentions go awry. Yaakov is blessed right before he has to leave, and perhaps that’s why we recite this blessing and take it to heart- because all of us are on journeys of growth, which will take us to unpredictable places from one Shabbat to the next. We are all, in a sense, like Yaakov- falling short of the blessings we receive and yet fully capable of growing into them, on a journey towards new things and yet always with the promise of someday inheriting the “blessing of Avraham,” which connects us to our people and our faith.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chayei Sarah: Blessed With Everything

Shalom Friends- when last we left our patriarch Avraham, he was sitting at the door of his tent, just waiting for strangers to pass by so he could perform acts of hesed/generous-compassion.

This week, we fast-forward some years and Avraham has just buried Sarah, his wife. Yet after the burial, we Avraham is described as both blessed, and yet lacking:

“Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. . . . .” (Bereshit/Genesis 24:1)

The Torah may describe Avraham as blessed bakol, or “with everything” [maybe “in everything,” or “in all things,” as above, the JPS translation] but Avraham apparently doesn’t feel that way, because in the very next verse he’s making his chief servant swear an oath to go get his son Yitzhak a wife from his home country. There are many, many interpretations of what bakol means; after all, if Avraham was blessed with everything possible, he wouldn’t have to ask his servant to go on a mission to help bring back a daughter-in-law. Our friend Rashi addresses this paradox by pointing out that bakol has the same numerical value as “son,” and thus reads the verse as saying that “since [Avraham] was blessed with a son, he had to get a wife for him.”

Rashi’s interpretation – that Avraham’s blessing of a son required him to help Yitzhak find a wife- is interesting because of how this phrase, bakol, is quoted in the Birkat Hamazon, or blessing after the meal. In a section in which we call God the “Merciful One,” we ask for blessing for ourselves and all who are gathered at the meal :

“Just as God blessed our ancestors Avraham Yitzhak and Yaakov, “in all things,” “by all things,” with “all things,” so may we all be blessed together with a complete blessing.”

[Note: Yitzhak and Yaakov also got their own blessings of kol or “everything;” cf. Bereshit 27:33 and 33:11. We’ll deal with that another time, along with the version of the text which includes the matriarchs.]

So here’s one way to look at it: just as Avraham’s blessing of a son evoked an obligation towards that son, so too, when we ask to be blessed like Avraham, bakol, we might think about how our the blessings we have can be oriented towards others. Rather than simply be thankful- no small task!- we might try to remember that Avraham’s greatness was not only that he was blessed “in all things,” but that he wanted to share that blessing with others.

That, in turn, is what it means to have a bracha shelemah– a “complete” or “whole” blessing, for how can we have everything if we don’t have the opportunity to practice generosity and compassion? We are whole when we give, and our blessing is complete when it is extended beyond ourselves.

Shabbat shalom,


P.S.- Here is a drasha I wrote some years ago on the same verse, and here is a third interpretation (but referencing some of the same texts.)

If you want the text of the entire parsha, you’ll find it on hebcal, and if you want the entire text of the blessing after the meals with translation and transliteration, there’s a great download here.


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Vayera: The Open Tent

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2009

Shalom one and all! I’m pleased to announce that my weekly commentaries now come in two formats. You can continue getting this weekly email, or you can use rss or another service to subscribe to the following blog:

I hope over the course of the year to upload all my archives to the blog, where they can be categorized by parsha and holiday.

OK- onward and upward. This week’s Torah portion is Vayera, which opens up with the famous scene of Avraham sitting in the opening of his tent:

“The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.  Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them . . . . . .  (Bereshit/ Genesis 18:1-2)

Now, at the end of the previous Torah portion, Avraham circumcises himself, so the rabbis assume he’s sitting in the tent because he’s resting and recovering from the procedure; if so, that makes his spirited hospitality even more remarkable. In fact, the rabbis say that Avraham was sitting in the opening of the tent- not inside it- precisely so that he could welcome any strangers who might pass by.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Avraham became the paradigmatic practitioner of hachnasat orchim, or welcoming of guests, which is in turn understood as a specific practice within the general value of gemilut hassadim, or “acts of lovingkindness.”

OK, so far, so good, but I promised you that this year we were going to look at links between Jewish prayer and the weekly Torah portion- and here it is, in the form of a passage from the Talmud which is recited every morning after the blessing for the mitzvah [commandment] of Torah study:

“These are things that yield interest during your life, while the principal remains for you in the world-to-come: honoring your father and mother, doing kindness, arriving early to study morning and evening, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick, providing for the bride, burying the dead, paying attention to prayer, bringing peace between one person and another; and the study of Torah is like them all [talmud torah keneged kulam].”

(from the tractate Shabbat, quoted from the prayerbook commentary My People’s Prayer Book, vol. 5: Birkhot HaShachar.)

The basic idea is that there are certain acts which bring reward in this life as well as reward in the World-To-Come, and these acts are fundamental to any understanding of a Jewish life: acts of love and generosity, prayer, and Torah study. Not only that, but in the same section of the Talmud quoted above, the ancient rabbis say that “the mitzvah of welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.”

I think we can understand that last statement by remembering that hachnasat orchim is not tzedaka, or charitable giving; it’s about establishing connections between human beings, and extending the boundaries of the self by caring for others. We can welcome rich or poor in our tents- it’s the establishment of authentic relationship (however temporary) which makes hospitality a holy act. Of course, as Rabbi Dessler taught, if hesed, lovingkindness, is about extending ourselves to give, it becomes a mitzvah for others to receive. Without the openness to receive, there can be no giving by others; without such giving of the self, there is no hesed; and without hesed, we are not truly the children of Avraham.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- for the text of Vayera and the haftarah, go here.

and for more on hospitality as a Jewish value, go here

and here.

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