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.