Throughout the next four Torah portions we read about Joseph and his life. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son; the other brothers felt this favoritism and they were jealous. Joseph dreams two dreams which foreshadow his supremacy over his family. He relates these dreams to the family, which does little to help the already strained relations between Joseph and his brothers.
Jacob and his sons were shepherds. Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers and their sheep. Upon seeing Joseph, the brothers plot to kill him. Reuben convinces the brothers not to kill Joseph, but rather to throw him into a pit, from which Reuben plans to later rescue him. Plans have a way of changing, and without Reuben’s knowledge, the brothers decide to sell Joseph to some merchants. Before Joseph is sold, the brothers take his famous coat of many colors. The coat is then dipped in goat’s blood and presented to Jacob as proof of Joseph’s having been killed by a wild animal. The merchants sell Joseph to Potiphar, who is an Egyptian noble.
Potiphar entrusts Joseph with the entire house. Life looks good for Joseph until Potiphar’s wife who could not get Joseph to succumb to her, accuses him of rape. Joseph is jailed, and there he meets Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker. While in prison, they both have dreams, which Joseph interprets. Joseph correctly foretells that the cupbearer will return to his service in the palace, and the baker will be put to death. Joseph asks the cupbearer to remember him, but he is forgotten.
“And Joseph was brought down to Egypt (39:10).” Anyone viewing the scene of Joseph being brought down to Egypt as a slave would have considered it a major tragedy. His brothers sold him into slavery and he was being taken far away from his father and his homeland. But the reality was that this was the first step toward his being appointed the second in command of Egypt. He would eventually be in charge of the national economy of Egypt and would be the mastermind behind the complex program to prepare for the years of famine during the years of plenty.
Later on, when Jacob went down to Egypt, anyone viewing the scene would have considered it a very positive one. Jacob was going to be reunited with his favorite son after so many years of separation. His son was a powerful leader and he would be treated with the honors of royalty. But what was the total picture. This was the first step in the exile of the Children of Israel. Their enslavement in Egypt was beginning at this very moment, although the entire process would take some time until it was finally felt.
No human being has the ability to know what the final consequences of any situation will actually be. Therefore, when a situation seems to be extremely negative, do not despair. This could lead to wonderful things for you. Conversely, when things seem to be going extremely well, do not become complacent or arrogant. One can never tell what the future has in store.
On his journey back to Canaan, Jacob passes through the territory controlled by Esau. Jacob seeks reconciliation with his brother, and sends gifts ahead, hoping to fend off a hostile confrontation. Jacob divides his family into two camps and sends them over the river to safety. Jacob spends the night on the other side of the river – alone.
During the night, a “man” comes to Jacob and wrestles with him until dawn. When the “man” realizes that he will not prevail, he wrenches Jacob’s thigh, but Jacob will not release him. Jacob demands a blessing from the “man.” The “man” gives Jacob a new name – Israel, which means, “one who struggles with God.”
Although the text states that Jacob wrestled with a man that night, all the commentators agree that it was no ordinary human being. Rambam and Ramban differ as to the exact nature of the struggle. Was it an actual event in the real world sense, or was it an internal struggle? Of more importance, what did the struggle accomplish?
The event tested and changed Jacob. It tested his strength; he prevailed, showing the strength that would be required for future events (The Anchor Bible by Speiser, p. 257). Through this event, we learn what it takes to remake one’s own character – the ability to hold on. Jacob refuses to let go and he wrestles the stranger throughout the night. Only in the morning does Jacob agree to let go, and then only after receiving a new name, a renewed identity.
The struggle of Jacob and the mysterious man leaves its mark on Jacob, who limps away with a wounded thigh. Our struggles in life, with others and with ourselves, leave scars. But they also produce growth and change. Jacob is no longer the wily, shrewd person he once was. Instead, through the process of introspection, remorse, and a commitment to confront his own failings, Jacob is able to remake himself.
While fleeing to Haran, Jacob rests one night. In a dream, Jacob sees angels ascending and descending a ladder. God comes to Jacob and repeats the same blessing given to Abraham and Isaac, and promises to protect and return him to Canaan. Jacob vows that God will be his God if God fulfills the promises.
In Genesis 28:12 we read, “And Jacob had a dream and in his dream there was a ladder standing on the ground and its top reached the heavens”. The Chofetz Chaim cited the idea expressed by many commentators that the ladder Jacob saw in his dream symbolizes the situation of every person in this world. There are two actions a person performs on a ladder. Either he goes up from the bottom to the top, or he goes down from the top to the bottom. Each day in a person’s life he faces new challenges. If he has the willpower and self-discipline to overcome those challenges, he goes up in his spiritual level. If, however, a person fails to exercise the necessary self-control, he lowers himself. This is our daily task, to climb higher each day.
There is no standing in one place. When challenges arise, you will either behave in an elevated manner and grow from the experience or you will fail. Learn to appreciate the daily challenges that face you. Every difficulty is a means of elevating yourself. Every time you overcome a negative impulse you grow as a person. When a person climbs a ladder, he feels his progress with each step. So too with your daily victories over your negative impulses – feel your progress and you will have the motivation to continue climbing.
Rebecca is barren, so Isaac prays to God on her behalf. God responds to Isaac’s prayers and Rebecca conceives twins. The twins struggle with each other within the womb, and this struggle will continue once they are born. The firstborn Esau, is red and hairy. He is a hunter and is favored by Isaac. The younger son, Jacob, is a quiet individual whom Rebecca favors.
One day, while Jacob is cooking stew Esau comes in starving and demands some. As payment, Jacob insists that Esau sell him his birthright. Esau agrees to the stated price and has some dinner.
Esau takes two wives from among the Hittites. Isaac and Rebecca are not happy with this. Isaac grows old, and the time for blessing his sons is near. Isaac instructs Esau to hunt and prepare a meal for him after which Isaac will bless him. Rebecca overhears the conversation, and recalls God having told her that her older son would serve her younger son (Genesis 25:23). She needed to take action, so Rebecca convinces Jacob to deceive his father. With Rebecca’s help, Jacob does so and receives Esau’s blessing for himself. Rebecca, fearing that Esau will take revenge against Jacob, tells Jacob to flee to Haran, to her brother Laban. In order to have Isaac approve of Jacob’s journey, Rebecca convinces Isaac that Jacob should be sent to Laban to find a bride from among her family.
In Genesis 25:20 we read: “And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca, the daughter of Betual the Aromite, from Padan Arom, the sister of Laban the Aromite, for himself for a wife.” Rashi raises the question that the information in this verse about Rebecca’s background seems superfluous. The Torah had already stated that Rebecca was the daughter of Betual, the sister of Lavan, and was from Padam Aram. The answer, says Rashi, is that this restatement is in praise of Rebecca. She was the daughter of an evil person, the sister of an evil person and lived in a community of evil people. Nevertheless, she did not learn from their evil behavior.
Many people try to excuse their faults by blaming others as the cause of their behavior. “It’s not my fault I have this bad trait, I learned it from my mother and father.” “I’m not to blame for this bad habit since all my brothers and sisters do it also.” We see from Rebecca that regardless of the faulty behavior of those in our surroundings, we have the ability to be more elevated. Of course, it takes courage and a lot of effort to be different. The righteous person might be considered a nonconformist and even rebellious by those in his environment whose standard of values are below their level. But a basic Torah principle is that we are responsible for our own actions. Pointing to others in your environment who are worse than us is not a valid justification for not behaving properly.
If you ever find yourself saying, “It’s not my fault I did this. It’s because of the way I was raised,” change your focus to “I’ll make a special effort to improve in this area to overcome the tendency to follow in the footsteps of others.” Blaming others for your faults and saying that you cannot do anything to change them will be a guarantee that they will remain with you.
I will address the complicated issue of Rebecca and Jacob “stealing” Esau’s firstborn blessing at another time. It, like life, is more complicated than it looks.
This week’s Parasha, opens with the death of Sarah. Sarah lived 127 years, and was buried in the Cave of Machpelah, which Abraham bought from the Hittites. Abraham decides that a wife should be found for his son Isaac, and directs his servant Eliezer to search for this wife. Abraham cautions Eliezer not to take a Canaanite woman for Isaac, so Eliezer travels to Abraham’s birthplace.
Upon his arrival, Rebecca, Abraham’s niece, comes to the well at which Eliezer and his entourage is resting. Through her words and actions, her kindness and generosity, Eliezer knows that she is “the one” for Isaac. Eliezer is welcomed into Rebecca’s father’s house, and it is agreed that Rebecca will go to Canaan to become Isaac’s wife. Isaac was meditating in the field when he first saw Rebecca.
Our rabbis tell us that Isaac was not merely meditating and communing with nature, but was engaging in prayer, for he had instituted that tradition of the Minchah afternoon prayer service (Talmud Brachot 25a). The afternoon prayer service is the shortest of the three daily prayer services. Often popularly called “that pause that refreshes,” it is a service during the middle of the day that affords the worshipper an additional opportunity to cultivate genuine appreciation of the true blessings of life.
Prayer is an opportunity for us to connect with God. In order to connect, I have to open myself up. This is also true in terms of interpersonal relationships. In order for me to connect with another person, I have to open myself up to them, be open to their world and how they see it.
Our relationship with God shapes our relationship with other human beings. A genuine conversation between two people is like prayer. In prayer, I am looking for the presence of God. I am listening and speaking, opening myself up to something other than what I am seeing, to something bigger than myself, to becoming something bigger than myself. The same can be said in terms of a conversation between two people. How appropriate that Isaac was seen praying when he first met Rebecca, the woman with whom he would share his life and become bigger than who he was on his own.
As this week’s Torah portion begins, God appears to Abraham as he is sitting in his tent doorway. During the visit from God, Abraham looks up and sees three visitors approaching him. He welcomes them with a great show of hospitality. According to tradition, the visitors are the angels, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. In the middle of their stay, one of the angels predicts that Sarah will finally give birth to a son, whom they will name Isaac.
After the visitors leave, God informs Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed. A discussion ensues in which Abraham bargains for the citizens of these cities.
God tests Abraham and commands him to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham obeys, and as he is about to lower the knife to slay his son, an angel calls out to stop him. Due to Abraham’s obedience God repeats his promise to make him a great nation.
Abraham is tested by God, being asked to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. The Torah does not state precisely why God is testing Abraham. Is it to test Abraham’s faith that God will not go back on God’s promise? Or is it to test Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to the divine will, his faithfulness rather than his faith?
Maimonides writes that God tested Abraham precisely because God knew that he would pass the test. Abraham’s faith would therefore become a beacon to the nations. The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig sees in the test a temptation by God. According to his view, God purposely conceals God’s true purpose, giving Abraham an opportunity to ground his faith in trust and freedom. Others say that the test was for Isaac, to see if he has faith and faithfulness as well as the extent of his ability to be the next leader. Yet others say that Abraham actually failed the test and that is why neither God and Abraham and Abraham nor Isaac ever speak again.
In the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, God tells Abram to leave his home and go to a land, which God will show him. God promises Abram that a special land will be set aside for him and his descendants, and that Abram will be the father of a great nation. When blessing Abram, God states: “And I will bless those that bless you, and those that curse you I will curse!”
The two parts of this verse present a contrast. In the first part, the predicate is followed by the object, whereas in the second part the object precedes the predicate. The commentator, the Kli Yakar, noting this contrast, offers an illuminating insight. Good intentions, though not yet carried out, are rewarded by God as accomplished deeds. Evil intentions, on the other hand, are punishable only when they have been put into effect.
Therefore, the Torah states, “I will bless them” at the beginning of the verse in order to indicate that they will be blessed from the moment they intend to bless you; even though they have not actually done so yet. The opposite is true of “those that curse you.” Here bad intentions do not count as deeds. Therefore, “I will curse” follows “and those that curse you.”
This idea of rewarding for a thought and not punishing until the act takes place is a great motivator for us to not only be the best we can, but it is also a beautiful reminder for us to give others with whom we interact the same opportunity to be the best they can be as well as the benefit of the doubt.
Parashat Noach (Gen. 6:9-11:32)
This week’s parasha is Noah and describes the widely known story of the ark, the flood and those who were saved. The parasha describes Noah as “a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). The rest of humanity was known to be corrupt and evil. God is distraught over the decision to create human beings and decides to start anew.
God commands Noah to build an ark and to bring seven pairs of all of the clean animals and one pair of all of the unclean animals found on earth. God also commands Noah to bring along his wife, his three sons (Shem, Ham and Japheth), and their wives. Noah follows God’s command without hesitation.
God could have saved Noah in many ways. Why did God burden Noah with the construction of an ark? Rashi states that the construction of the ark was designed to arouse curiosity among the people. Upon seeing the ark in its various stages of construction, the people would be prompted to ask Noah, “Why are you building an ark?” to which Noah would reply, “Due to the corrupt manner in which people relate to each other, God has chosen to destroy the earth, with a flood,” – providing the people with an opportunity to repent.
I think we can look at the length of time it took to build the ark not as an opportunity for the people walking by the ark to ask about it and repent, but rather as an opportunity for Noah to reach beyond himself. I think God was testing Noah and his leadership abilities. God wanted to see if Noah would question God about destroying humanity. Would he demand to know how God could do this or would he just be concerned about his own welfare and the welfare of his family.
Noah was not quite there, but his descendant Abram would have the guts and courage to call out God on God. Tune in next week for a continuation of the story.
With this last set of holidays, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, we not only finish the holiday season we also finish reading the Torah. In the same service that we conclude reading the last words of Deuteronomy, we immediately begin reading the book of Genesis. There is no “end” to reading the Torah. We are never finished reading and studying the Torah and its lessons. We re-read and re-study the same stories every year.
One could ask, “Isn’t there some point where we have studied the story of creation, or Noah’s Ark, or the story of the Offering of Isaac enough times?” The answer is, no, there is always something we can learn. Every year we are different, and therefore we have the opportunity to see something new in the same story we read and studied last year. This is true in life as well. We may be doing the same thing we were doing last year, but hopefully we have grown in the past year. So although things look the same, we are not. How we interact with life around us, depends on us and how we push and enable our developed selves to interact with our existing stories.
During the process of gathering the harvest (around the month of Tishrei in the land of Israel) farmers must leave their homes, their gathered produce, and their material wealth to dwell in the sukkah. In doing so, it is hoped that they remember the time when they had nothing and were entirely dependent on God for their sustenance – the time that their ancestors lived in sukkot in the wilderness and ate manna from heaven; their entire survival directly dependent upon God’s providence. But after they were settled in the land and it started to yield fruit in abundance as a result of their hard work, the danger of their forgetting that God is the source of all blessing and success became a likelihood. There was a probable chance for them to become haughty and say to themselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” [Deut. 8: 17].
Even though most of us are no longer farmers, we are still instructed to leave our homes and to enter temporary booths, in order to put our material possessions into proper perspective. The hope is that we give thanks to God in recognition of the fact that God is the source of all blessings, not just when we have no natural source of sustenance, but even when it appears that we have everything we need without God’s assistance. According to this view, Sukkot is not about remembering miracles in the past; rather, it is meant to remind us of our source of well being in the present. By reliving the sukkah of our humble origins, we gain perspective about our good lives in the here and now. Excessive pride and arrogance are inappropriate reactions to our material wealth considering that we once had nothing and survived only by the grace of God. We should realize that just as God was responsible for our survival in the desert, God is responsible for the good life in our land as well.
V’zot HaBracha is the final parasha of the Torah. It contains Moses’ last words, which are blessings to each of the tribes. There is also a closing blessing for all of the tribes, in which Moses reminds the tribes of the abundance they are to enjoy and the goodness which God has bestowed upon them. Moses then ascends Mount Nebo and God shows him the land of Israel. Moses dies at the age of 120. His burial place is unknown. Upon hearing of his death, the Israelites observe a 30 day period of mourning.
Joshua assumes the leadership position of the Israelites and is faced with the task of entering and conquering the land of Israel. The parasha, and thus the Torah, closes with the statement that there would never again be a prophet like Moses.
“And this is the blessing, with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel before his death” (Deut. 33:1). Why is Moses called “the man of God”? The commentator Ibn Ezra states that this title was given to Moses to stress the prophetic origin and force of the words uttered in the parasha; that they did not merely proceed from Moses’ own mouth, but were endowed with Divine authority. Other commentators take the opposite view, that these words were Moses’ own words, bidding farewell to his people, in contradistinction to the rest of his utterances in the Torah, which were God’s words.
There is a beautiful midrash, an interpretative story, that explains the verse in a way that is appropriate for each of us. It states that when God came to Moses and told him that the hour of his death was approaching, Moses replied: “Please wait until I bless Israel. All my life they have had no pleasant experiences with me, for I constantly rebuked them and admonished them to fear God and fulfill the commandments. I do not wish to leave this world before I have blessed them.” Anyone can find fault with others. True greatness is to see the good points of others.
What a great message for each of us to remember every day of our lives. Have an easy fast.
Parashat Ha’Azinu is comprised of a poem warning the People of Israel of their impending rebellion against God. Moses calls upon the heaven and earth to witness his words.
The second verse of chapter 32 reads: “May my teaching drop like rain, may my utterance flow like the dew; like the storm winds upon vegetation and like raindrops upon blades of grass.” I have read two interpretations of this verse, and I would like to share them with you.
The first interpretation comes from the medieval commentator Rashi. He states that the rain in this verse refers to the words of Torah. Moses asked that the Torah penetrate the People of Israel like life-giving rain and like dew. Storm winds give strength and life to vegetation, and similarly, the struggle to master Torah gives us, its students, life and purpose. Moses wanted the words of Torah to penetrate the people and make it fruitful, like the rain and dew.
The second interpretation comes from Rabbi Bunim of Parshisco. Rabbi Bunim understands this verse very differently. Whereas Rashi understood the rain to be the words of Torah, Rabbi Bunim understands the rain to indicate words of admonition. He states that when rain falls on trees and plants, growth is not immediately noticeable. It takes time for the rain to have a visible effect. This is also true with admonition. Very often we will try to help a person improve themself, but we will not see a change in that person. Rabbi Bunim says that we must keep trying because persistence and a smile go a long way.
I believe that both of these interpretations provide us with much to think about as we begin this new Jewish year.
This week’s parasha, Nitzavim-VaYelech, is a double portion (this is done so we can complete the reading of the entire Torah in one Jewish year). Moses continues his farewell to the people, and states that the covenant is not only with them, but with all of the people of Israel, past, present and future.
Moses foretells of the people’s rebellion against God after his death, and describes to them the evil that will befall them because of this rebellion. After a time, the people will repent and God will restore them to the Land of Israel. Moses tells the people that they have a choice between life and death, and charges them to choose life, by choosing to obey God and God’s commandments.
Moses continues and explains that he is no longer able to be an active leader. He appoints Joshua as the next leader of the People of Israel. God instructs Moses to write down a poem that will serve as a witness warning the people against their upcoming rebellion. The parasha closes with Moses preparing to deliver the poem to the People of Israel.
“For this commandment that I command you today – it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, [for you ] to say, ‘Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen and perform it?’ …Rather, the matter is very near to you- in your mouth and your heart – to perform it.” Deuteronomy 30:11-14 tells us that the law which we must know and observe is not beyond reach. Everyone is capable of studying and understanding it.
There is a midrash (interpretative story) on this verse. A fool went to the synagogue and asked how one might begin to learn the law. The Rabbis answered that study begins with the Torah, then the Prophets, followed by the Writings. After you have studied the whole Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Writings), one learns, Mishnah, Talmud and Halacha (Jewish Law). The fool thinks, how can I do all of this, and turns to leave. The wise person learns one chapter each day until one completes the task (Deuteronomy Rabbah 8:3).
The hardest part of a journey is taking the first step. With the Jewish New Year approaching, what a wonderful time to take that first step in making Judaism a more permanent part of our lives.
In this week’s Torah portion, entitled Ki Tavo, which translates into “when you enter the land,” Moses instructs the Israelites regarding the law of bikurim, the bringing of the first fruits. Moses states that when the Israelites enter the Land of Israel and settle it, they are to bring the first fruits as sacrifices of thanksgiving to God. As part of the ceremony, the priest recites a history of the Israelites – Abraham and Jacob’s wanderings, the slavery in Egypt, and the possession of the Land of Israel.
The first fruits are brought after the Israelites have settled the land and actually have fruits to offer. Moses is telling the Israelites about a ceremony that will take place in the future. When these words are spoken, the Israelites are on the other side of the Jordan River, hoping and waiting to take the next step in building the land and taking the next step in becoming a people that live in their own land. Moses also provides the wording for the ceremony. The wording for the ceremony describes the history of the Israelites. The history and experiences that have lead them to this miraculous opportunity to be able to offer the first fruits that were grown and harvested in the land of Israel to God.
This ceremony, that will take place in the future, celebrates that the Israelites are living in and cultivating the land of Israel at that time and for generations to come The language of the ceremony places the Israelites past and path at its center. This is an essential step in going forward for the Israelites as they take their next step in settling the land and continuing to become a people. This is also true with us as individual people, as a Jewish community and as Americans. In order to know where we are going, we need to know from where we have come. Then we have to let that become part of how we move forward.
This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetze and continues a repetition of the mitzvot by which Israel is commanded to live. It contains 74 mitzvot. Jewish teachers have continually looked for an underlying rationale for the observance of the mitzvot. A commentary entitled Devarim Rabbah 6:3 gives us an insight. “Rabbi Pinchas ben Hama said: Wherever you go and whatever you do, pious deeds will accompany you. When you build a new house, ‘make a parapet for your roof’ (Deuteronomy 22:8). When you make a door, ‘write [the commandments] upon your doorposts’ (Deuteronomy 6:9). When you put on new clothing, don’t ‘wear cloth that combines wool and linen’ (Deuteronomy 19:27). When you cut your hair, don’t’ ‘round the corners of you head’ (Leviticus 19:27). When you plough your field, do not, ‘plow with an ox and an ass together’ (Deuteronomy 22:20). When you reap your harvest, and have forgotten a sheaf, don’t pick it up. Leave it for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow (Deuteronomy 24:19).”
The mitzvot are commandments and are commanded in order to imbue each common, mundane, human action with a sense of holiness. The mitzvot give us an opportunity to see and to seek out holiness in the everyday. It is our mission to take advantage of the opportunities presented to us.
In “The Jewish Way,” Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches that the Exodus from Egypt teaches not just about social justice in the past and present, but of the redemption of the world in the future. “The overwhelming majority of earth’s human beings have always lived in poverty and under oppression, their lives punctuated by sickness and suffering…Most of the nameless and faceless billions know the world as indifferent or hostile. Statistically speaking, human life is of little value. The downtrodden and the poor accept their fate as destined; the powerful and the successful accept good fortune as their due. Power, rather than justice, seems always to rule.
Jewish religion affirms otherwise: Judaism insists that history and the social-economic-political reality in which people live will eventually be perfected; much of what passes for the norm of human existence is really a deviation from the ultimate reality.
How do we know this? From an actual event in history – the Exodus…The freeing of the slaves testified that human beings are meant to be free…No, the Exodus did not destroy evil in the world. What it did was set up an alternative conception of life. Were it not for the Exodus, humans would have reconciled themselves to the evils that exist in the world. The Exodus establishes the dream of perfection and thereby creates the tension that must exist until reality is redeemed.”
The story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egyptian slavery has served the Jewish people, on a national and individual level, as an inspiration in the midst of oppression. The drama of the Exodus has given hope for a brighter future. For some, the Exodus is not seen as a one time event, but rather as God’s intervention in the world and in God’s promise that God will be with the Jewish people.
In “The Role of Non-establishment Groups”, journalist Walter Ruby exhibits this idea when he wrote “virtually no one,… dared predict in 1985-88, that the seemingly impregnable citadel of repression that was the Soviet Union would self-destruct so quickly, or that more than 500,000 Jews would be able to leave the USSR in three years beginning in late 1989.
The only person I remember who made such a prediction was Avital Sharansky, who told me during an interview in New York during a very bleak moment in 1984 … that not only would Anatoly soon be granted his freedom, but that hundreds of thousands more Soviet Jews would be coming on aliyah in the near future.
I asked Avital what was her basis for being so optimistic at a moment when U.S.-Soviet relations had hit a low point. She responded with evident seriousness that her study of Judaism had convinced her that the God of Israel had already preordained a great modern Exodus of Soviet Jewry to rival the biblical Exodus from Egypt. I recall feeling in awe of Avital’s evident deep faith in Jewish redemption in the face of an implacable situation that appeared to be turning more ominous, but concluding sadly that she was engaged in willful self-delusion. I fact, Avital Sharansky’s unworldly vision proved prophetic.”
The redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery was and continues to be a defining moment in Jewish history. In Genesis 15:13-14, in the context of the covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people, God foretells the suffering that Israel would endure as slaves in a foreign land. This can suggest that this experience is of significance to the very reason and mission of the Jewish people.
In Deuteronomy 24:17-22 we read: “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment. When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow – in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.”
In society, we tend to view gifts to the less fortunate than us as charity. Charity is understood as what we give out of the goodness of our hearts, when we feel moved to give. The Torah takes a different view on charity. We call it tzedakah, which has its root in the word righteous, and justice. We are told that assistance to those less fortunate than us is in fact a matter of law. We are required to act in a way that reflects sensitivity for those who are vulnerable. God has gifted something to us, money, a harvest, etc., and we are obligated to give some of that to the needy. The imposition of this demand is that we were slaves in Egypt and that we were redeemed from there. We were a persecuted group who suffered at the hands of others, and we were redeemed from there in order to do right in the world.
I have heard people say about Passover, “We were slaves, God redeemed us (let’s eat).” But that is not the story. There should not be a “period” after “us.” Rather there should be a comma. The real message of Passover is, “We were slaves, God redeemed us, so that we could become a holy nation.” The challenge is to live the second half of that sentence in our everyday lives.
Judaism is a religion that attaches meaning and purpose to life. The mitzvot are intended to enhance and enrich us and the lives we live. With Judaism’s focus on life, what does that mean about Judaism’s perspective on death? Is death the cessation of life or is it the beginning of a new type of existence? Does how we behave in this life have any connection to what happens to us after we die?
While there are a clear Biblical references to burial and mourning practices, there are few Biblical references to what happens after one dies. There are references to sheol – which is described as a destination for all dead, but the Bible’s silence on the topic could suggest its belief in finality to life once one takes his/her final breath.
By the time of the rabbinic period, 3rd century B.C.E – 6th century C.E., we see the belief in an afterlife was a central theme. What the nature of the afterlife was varied, from it being a place where the soul of only the righteous ascended to a place where everybody ascends, even the wicked, after their souls have been purged over the course of a year.
Rabbi Peter Schweitzer states that “We live on after our death in the God works that we have done in the good name we have made for ourselves… we gain a kind of immortality through our deeds and our accomplishments, the institutions that we build, the charities that we endow, the families we nurture, and the lasting memories that endure in the minds of those who will survive us.”
The Exodus from Egypt is a significant event in Jewish history. It is where we began the transformation from people to a nation. The Egyptian experience provides much of the basis for social justice and morality. We are told not to subvert the rights of strangers and orphans, we are prohibited from taking a widow’s garment as a guarantee for a loan and if we overlook a sheaf in the field we are not permitted to retrieve it.
The collective memory of the Exodus from Egypt has served the Jewish people as an inspiration in the midst of oppression. The Exodus has given perpetual hope for a brighter future. Throughout history, Jews have continuously prayed to God and asked to be redeemed again.
In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered the opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago. “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ first words were: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.’ While Pharaoh retorted:’Who is the Lord that I should heed his voice and Let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.’ The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”
For Rabbi Heschel, the Bible’s tale of the Exodus served as the foundation for his belief that human beings are meant to be free and equal. That message can be quite complicated to actually live out, but is a message we need to struggle with to live out everyday.
If the Torah is an eternal document, how do we reconcile issues or topics that were written about in the Torah that do not seem to be in step with our modern day thinking? Women’s roles in society, slavery, or polygamy are a few of those possible topics.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, in “Jewish Women in Time and Torah” offers a thoughtful suggestion. He writes: “If one considers the status of women as it emerges from these laws, mores, and opinions, one cannot help wondering: Is this Judaism? Is this Torah? How is all of this to be reconciled with Torah values and ideals? What happened to ‘And thou shalt love your fellow as yourself’ and to “Righteousness, righteousness, thou shalt pursue’?… Undoubtedly, the basic views and values that originally determined the status of women in Jewish society were not derived from the Torah, even though many of them were later given midrashic justification. They were Torah-tolerated because they could not be abolished with an act of Torah legislation. They had to be tolerated, but certain changes and differences were present which indicated that an entirely different system of values and teachings also existed…we have discovered the developing status of women as it passed through two different levels: the Torah-tolerated one and the Torah-guided and Torah-instructed one. On the first and lowest level, in the early man-built and man-maintained society, woman is not recognized as possessing her own personality. At this stage she is merely an impersonal adjunct to the male. It is the Torah-teaching that recognizes her in her own personal existence and establishes her human dignity in a world in which she has her own vitally important place because of her own life-related nature.”
What does it mean to be the Chosen People? Does the idea of chosenness imply entitlement or responsibility?
For contemporary western-minded people we are uncomfortable with the idea of chosenness, as it goes against values of equality. If God created all human beings, why would God single out one group of people? For what purpose?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “ The Hebrew Bible speaks of a God who not only loves, but who loves precisely those who are otherwise unloved – the younger rather than the older, the weak, not the strong; the few, not the many. From this flow all acts of chosenness in the Bible: Abel, not Cain; Abraham, not a nation; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; Israel the slaves, rather than Egypt the masters. To be sure, no one is rejected. Divine choice does not mean that God is with this person, not that; with one nation, not another…There is nothing exclusive about patriarchal covenant: “Through you shall all the families be blessed.” But there is nonetheless an insistence on the integrity of diversity, the dignity of difference; the preciousness to God of those whom the world ignore or mistreats, God sets His image on the only creature for whom difference is a source of identity, namely man. And to exemplify this truth, He chooses Israel, the people who are called on to be different, to show that for God, difference matters.”
What could the purpose or purposes be for keeping kosher? Do we need a reason, or is because God said so enough? If we do not need a reason, but would still like one, what could a reason be for keeping kosher?
One could say kashrut is about healthy eating. In addressing the aspect of keeping kosher that states which animals are permitted or forbidden to be eaten, there are those who say the animals permitted or prohibited are better or are harmful to your body and how it functions. Others state that the animals permitted and prohibited for us to eat are categorized by whether or not they prey on animals. We are only permitted to eat those animals that do not eat other animals. This can absolutely be seen as an oxymoron, we are determining the permissibility of animals we can eat based on the fact that they do not eat other animals.
There are yet others who would say kashrut for them is all about the idea of training oneself to make choices with the very thing that we need to sustain ourselves. They would say it does not matter what is permitted and what is forbidden, something needed to be in and out. Kashrut is about us differentiating ourselves from animals by making conscious decisions with regard to the very thing that we need to survive – food. By making choices with regards to food, we create a structure in our lives that sets us up to acknowledge we have to control and can be in control of how we live. We have choices as to how to live and we need to aspire to make thoughtful choices with each step every day of our lives. That first step begins with food and then branches out to all of the other aspects of our lives. Conscious, thoughtful decisions – that is what Judaism expects from us.
What role does Halacha, Jewish law, play in deciding ritual practice? Does Jewish practice have to be dictated by Jewish law? Can I decide what and how I want to observe Jewish ritual? What role does community pressure play on one’s observance?
There are pros and cons to each of these approaches. One could observe Jewish ritual by following Halacha to the “t”, but it could be without heart. One could observe based on purely personal feeling toward that ritual, but then where is the commitment that goes beyond whim.
The more difficult approach is following the structure that pushes us beyond relying on our personal feelings, stretches us and at the same time forces us to make sure that Jewish practice and Judaism in general are not a “dead hand without a heart and soul.” How this balance works is an eternal Jewish challenge.
Do the origins of the Torah have any impact on how I observe? If so, what role does it play? Is it all or nothing? Why do we think in black and white? Will I ever be able to prove the origins of the Torah? If I could, would that change how I practice? Do I only practice how I practice because I feel beholden to one vision or another that someone else has presented?
If I believe the Torah was written by God, then the authority of Biblical law is God and Biblical law can only be changed by God. If I believe the Torah was written by humans, than I will probably believe the authority of Biblical law is humans and Biblical law can be changed by humans.
For instance, driving on shabbat is prohibited in the Torah because it violates the biblical commandment of lighting a fire, among other prohibitions. If I believe the Torah was written by God, that prohibition can only be changed by God. If I believe the Torah was written by humans, then I can say that the Torah was written by humans at a specific time period for a specific situation. Continuing down that path, I could make the argument that since humans wrote the Torah to respond to their time period, it is our job today to make sure that Jewish law responds to our time period and that driving on shabbat to engage in shabbat experiences of services, family or friends is permissible and may even be encouraged.
There is an argument that could be made that once the floodgates open and humans are left as the authority for deciding or changing Biblical law, we will decide what is subjectively best for us and all of Judaism will wash away. What if it is something in the middle? God and us working together to figure out how to bring the most holiness, respect and dignity to the world. That would be a lot of work, but I do believe that is what Judaism is about, the brit, the covenant, between us and God.
How do we make decisions and what makes for a Jewish decision? In Deuteronomy we read “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord…” How does one figure out “what is right and good in the sight of the Lord?”
Is following halacha (Jewish Law) the definition of this? Is halacha enough? What about subjective human elements such as reason, emotion and intuition? Do they play a role? How do these interact or what is the interplay between them and halacha?
If one does not use halacha, but rather uses Jewish values such as brit (covenant), respect for human dignity, tikkun olam to guide in making a decision, does that make it a Jewish decision?
When faced with making a decision, a person will consider various factors and values which might be taken into consideration. As Jews, one of those values is Judaism. The difference between secular ethics and Jewish ethics is that secular ethics bases itself solely on individual subjective human criteria. Jewish ethics incorporates cumulative wisdom and experience of Jewish texts, traditions, values and customs. How we as individual Jews may use this cumulative wisdom may differ, but just using it makes our decisions Jewish.